Dan Hust | Democrat
Sullivan County Tourism and Promotion CEO Richard Altman details his nonprofit's goals to promote local tourism.
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Story by Dan Hust
MONTICELLO Legislators agreed 7-2 yesterday to renew the Sullivan County Visitors Association’s (SCVA’s) tourism marketing contract for 2013.
The vote capped 10 months of wrangling over the contract, which the SCVA has held for the past dozen years but which the new crop of legislators felt should be openly rebid.
In the end, legislators chose to stick with the SCVA over Sullivan County Tourism and Promotion (SCTP), a nonprofit formed last year by several prominent local Democrats.
Accusations had been made for months that the Democratic majority would play political favorites, but joining Republicans Alan Sorensen and Kitty Vetter in approving the SCVA’s renewal were Democratic legislators Scott Samuelson, Kathy LaBuda, Cindy Gieger, Jonathan Rouis and Ira Steingart. Voting against were Democrats Gene Benson and Cora Edwards.
“I still haven’t gotten all my questions answered,” explained Benson. “I can’t in good conscience vote for this.”
Edwards agreed, feeling that the SCVA’s proposed $1.1 million budget for 2013 didn’t illustrate how new initiatives might be funded.
“I would like to see the SCVA in the future be more responsive to the needs of the community, not just their membership,” she added.
In a presentation before the vote, SCVA President/CEO Roberta Byron-Lockwood contended that the nonprofit works with all those interested in tourism, be they one of the 300+ members or not.
“All tourism businesses in the county have access to any of the tools we provide,” she maintained.
Both the SCVA and SCTP gave hourlong presentations yesterday in public, though they had already made closed-door pitches to legislators in October.
Byron-Lockwood touted the SCVA’s professionalism, expertise and knowledge, noting that she, husband and Vice President Herb Clark and employee Phyllis Andrews cumulatively possess over 70 years in the tourism business.
With www.scva.net as the organization’s nexus, she said the SCVA’s strategy is to brand the county with a positive image similar to what SCTP CEO Richard Altman related in his subsequent presentation.
In fact, the two competitors shared many goals, from reaching out to people with discretionary income to spend, to emphasizing the county’s natural beauty and leveraging advertising dollars.
Altman, however, argued that SCTP would be a change.
“We need to reintroduce ourselves to the densest population we can draw tourists from,” he said, explaining that SCTP would man info booths not just in strategic locations in the county but down at farm markets in metropolitan New York City.
He told legislators that the state-designated tourism region in which Sullivan County sits (the Catskills) is near the bottom of the pack statewide in attracting tourists, only exceeding the Thousand Islands and Chautauqua/Allegheny regions. (Though when Sullivan County is counted by itself, said several SCVA supporters later, it ranks a much higher 19 out of 62 counties.)
Having worked for both the NYC and Fort Lauderdale, Florida visitors bureaus, Altman said Sullivan County, like Florida, could recapture generations lost to other locales as vacationing tastes changed, utilizing targeted marketing efforts including campaigns aimed at ethnic groups like Orthodox Jews, Hispanics and African-Americans, in addition to the white urbanites who often become second-homeowners locally.
“In Manhattan,” he explained, “we’re a steal. We’re the biggest bargain on earth!”
Like some legislators, he took issue with the SCVA’s membership model.
“I don’t think members should have any special priority when it comes to the marketing of the county,” Altman stated. “… I don’t want anyone coming in and thinking, ‘I can’t talk to you because I’m not a member.’”
Altman attended the meeting with SCTP President Donna Schick and Social Media Manager Maryellen Nugent Lee, whom he later said would be part of an executive team paid around $100,000 out of a $605,000 budget, with more staff added as needed (a grantwriter is in the wings). The SCTP already has an office on Bank Street in Monticello.
SCVA, based in Ferndale, projected a budget of $1.1 million, with its staff of three being paid around $240,000.
Both organizations faced some scrutiny from legislators. The SCVA, for example, was criticized for not having dedicated office hours on Saturdays. The SCTP was challenged on the perception that its business plan was more dream than reality.
Several of the public speakers following the presentations also took aim at the SCTP, worrying that its short period of existence and even shorter time to prepare for the 2013 season would hurt the county’s tourism promotion efforts. Indeed, 13 of the 14 speakers appeared to side with the SCVA (many of whom are SCVA board members or supporters), reminding legislators of the agency’s long, award-winning record.
Ultimately, the majority of legislators were convinced by both the SCVA’s presentations and the supportive public comment.
“I truly believe the SCVA has proven their record,” remarked Legislator Kitty Vetter.
But legislators reminded listeners that the contract itself has yet to be worked out and it won’t be exactly what the SCVA has had before.
“We did not put an RFP [Request for Proposals] out for no reason,” remarked Legislature Chairman Scott Samuelson. “There are still concerns with the organization.”
He indicated benchmarks will be set, and the just-approved resolution states that the SCVA will not get any more than the state-required minimum 85 percent share of the county’s room tax (the rest going to the county itself). However, it’s also likely that the SCVA will attempt to negotiate a contract that lasts longer than just the next year.
In the meantime, Legislator Kathy LaBuda promised this won’t be the only contracted agency which may undergo such intense scrutiny.
“Every contract that has not been looked at will be looked at,” she stated. “… People are not entitled to these contracts they have to earn it.”