No. 9: Organizational shakeups at economic entities

12/21/2011

Editor's Note: This is the second in a series of 10 stories counting down The Telegram's top 10 stories of 2011 as chosen by The Telegram staff.

Editor's Note: This is the second in a series of 10 stories counting down The Telegram's top 10 stories of 2011 as chosen by The Telegram staff.

By SHAJIA AHMAD

sahmad@gctelegram.com

Several public and private groups — the mainstays of Garden City and Finney County's business promotion and economic development — experienced consequential changes in leadership and organization through the year.

A severed relationship that had existed since at least 1977 between Finney County and the Garden City Area Chamber of Commerce dominated many newspaper headlines throughout the year, a matter of disputes that ultimately have led to an independent tourism bureau that will take shape starting next month.

When several area hoteliers approached county officials in April seeking separation between the guest-tax funded Finney County Convention and Tourism Bureau and the chamber — a private business league — commissioners asked everyone to return to the table and work out their differences.

Many hoteliers cited transparency concerns about how and where the guest tax dollars were being used by the tourism bureau that existed under the auspices of the chamber. They also questioned the bureau's performance in bringing events to Finney County that put heads in beds.

At that April meeting, Commissioner Cliff Mayo told both the chamber and hotel/motel partisans: "I am of the opinion that we have something in place that will work if you will listen to each other."

What they ended up working out was a complete separation between the chamber and the county, and the cancellation of a contract.

For at least the last 34 years, the county had contracted with the chamber for the private group to "manage and operate a convention and tourism bureau" via staff, management and other services, in return for funds from the transient guest tax, a 6 percent county-wide tax paid by hotel and motel guests that generates hundreds of thousands of dollars annually.

In addition, the CTB had an advisory committee but no policy-making board. The advisory committee reported to the chamber's board of directors, which in turn made final recommendations to the county commission.

County commissioners conceded to the wishes of area hoteliers and the CTB's advisory committee and voted in November in support of an independent bureau, one with its own decision-making board.

Chamber representatives were dismayed at the decision and tried to sway CTB representatives and county commissioners to reinstate the former contract, part of which laid out an agreement to fund one-third of the chamber director's salary, or sign a new contract with reduced fiscal responsibilities to the chamber.

"We gave the CTB everything they asked for except that the chamber retains a veto power, only in the event (that the CTB board) is breaking a law or breaking policy. ... That's the only thing. We've tremendously reduced fees, (and) they would be in charge of people and policy. We've worked very hard to give them everything they want," Rich Taylor, the chamber board's president, had said during a November county commission meeting.

In the months since the county's decision, CTB advisory board members have met numerous times to outline their new vision, organization structure and 2012 budget, utilizing nearly $700,000 in guest tax dollars to promote convention and tourism in Finney. The new independent bureau is set to operate Jan. 13, according to its directors.

The advisory committee members of the CTB — soon to be a policy making board — have consistently spoken in favor of the new direction.

"Have some faith in us," Amro Samy, part-owner of the Clarion Inn and a tourism advisory committee member, told commissioners during the November meeting. "I think you'll see some good things come out of this."

In addition, both the private chamber of commerce and Finney County Economic Development Corp., a publicly-funded group that works in conjunction with the chamber and CTB, also will see new leadership in the upcoming months.

Former chamber director Paul Joseph and former FCEDC president Eric Depperschmidt both resigned in the October and November, respectively.

Shawna Whitehurst, the former vice president of marketing and membership, was appointed interim president of the commerce chamber. Lona Duvall, a former business and retention director at FCEDC, was appointed as interim president of the economic development group.

Both group's boards currently are looking for new directors.

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