Let tourism board complete its work

June 23, 1997

The volunteer transition team designed to reform the Washington County's tourism agency isn't perfect.

It's taken some debatable leaps of authority, formulated some debatable strategies toward tourism and handled the Convention and Visitor Bureau's staff with debatable compassion.

It's operated in the dark and failed to keep the membership informed.

That's a pretty heavy indictment. But despite the transition team's shortcomings, as one local business woman said during a tourism meeting this week, "we have to move on."

At this point, the transition team led by Ron Stansbury is Washington County tourism's best chance of moving on. In fact, the team has done what most governmental and pseudo-governmental groups locally find so reprehensible: Taken tough, unpopular stands in the name of the greater good.


So it shouldn't come as a surprise that the County Commissioners now want to put the clamps down on the transition team. Progress you know. Can't have that.

The old Convention and Visitors Bureau board was dissolved largely at the insistence of the Washington County legislative delegation which quite properly saw that the corporation was foundering.

Under the old system, well over half of the county's $500,000-plus tourism budget (funded through hotel room taxes) was going toward salaries and administration, leaving proportionally little for marketing, advertising and promotion. Tourism strategy and direction were, at best, inconsistent. The bureaucracy seemed most intent on protecting its own existence.

The transition team, which was basically charged with ushering in a new, permanent board, has taken the brochure and run with it. Seemingly they're trying to mend a decade of bad policy over the course of six months. Good for them.

"We can't fix the past, but we can fix the future," said transition-team member Charles Sekula.

Very true. The transition team did not create the mess. It did not hire too many employees, it did not let tourism drift aimlessly. But of course it will get the blame for the mistakes of others, blame from members dissatisfied with its focus and from employees who are losing their jobs.

And the transition team seems willing to accept the blame, to take the role of the heavy. That attribute is hard to find these days.

Perhaps the transition team has overstepped its specific mandate by firing employees, hiring a new director and shutting down visitor centers in Breezewood and Williamsport.

Commissioner Ron Bowers says he tends to agree with the direction in which the transition team is headed, but he says it doesn't have the legal authority to do it. He wants to trust these reforms to the new, permanent board which must be in place by fall.

There is some merit in that argument. But not a lot.

The main reason for the tourism shakeup, most everyone agrees, is that the CVB was top-heavy with people and short on marketing. But now the commissioners are telling the transition board it is overstepping its bounds by firing employees.

Huh? How do the commissioners think the CVB is to reduce personnel costs without reducing personnel? Who cares who does it, the transition team or the permanent board?

And Bowers overlooks the fact that the CVB is a private corporation and can basically do as it pleases. True, it spends tax dollars. But they are tax dollars generated by hotel rooms, not by the general, Washington County public.

If the CVB membership doesn't like the transition team's actions it is free to vote the transition team out of power. But that's up to the CVB, not the County Commissioners.

During Wednesday's county-legislative tourism meeting, the commissioners were clearly loaded for bear and to catch the transition board off guard in front of local lawmakers. But in truth it was the commissioners who looked hopelessly unprepared.

They wanted to know who would be answering the phones once the county employees were terminated. Answer: State employees.

They fumed that the transition board hadn't drawn up a marketing plan - until a state official pointed out that none of the past, permanent boards had thought to draw up a marketing plan either.

Even more embarrassing for the County Commissioners is that President Greg Snook (who was absent Wednesday) is a member of the transition board and, you would have thought, been able to easily answer the concerns of the other four - assuming he even bothered to attend a majority of the transition team's meetings.

If anything, Wednesday's show should have proved to state lawmakers they were correct to steer the tourism agency toward reform. Del. Bruce Poole gently urged the public not to engage in commissioner-bashing (sorry Bruce), but was firm in his belief that the transition group is headed in the right direction and that no problems are so great that they can't be cured with a little communication. Poole is right.

For 10 years the commissioners have let tourism drift. Why the sudden interest? If they truly want to help, they'll turn down the heat.

Stansbury, Sekula and the rest of the transition team are trying to move the county forward. Their vision seems sound and the County Commissioners would do well to offer assistance instead of obstruction and be grateful there are some good people in Washington County who are willing to take an unpopular stand in the name of progress.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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