Question finances, communications and planning
By Michael Turton
Recent allegations regarding the financial and organization practices of the Putnam County Visitors Bureau (PCVB) have prompted an investigation by the New York State Attorney General. The Paper/Philipstown.info spoke with a number of Cold Spring merchants whose Main Street businesses largely depend on tourists. While some praised PCVB and its director, Libby Pataki, to an extent, many expressed concern over the organization’s fiscal conduct and questioned how effectively it has promoted tourism in the county. (Click here for accompanying video.)
Pataki has been criticized for creating a second non-profit tourism group, Putnam Tourism Corp (PTC), that requested and was granted 501(c)(3) status by the IRS, allowing it to solicit tax-deductible donations. Alison Anthoine, president of the Cold Spring Area Chamber of Commerce, defended that set-up but only to a point.
“It makes sense to have a separate 501(c)(3) [since] the Visitors Bureau, like the Chamber, cannot give a tax deduction to contributors,” she said. “The problem is that [PTC] wasn’t maintained according to basic organizational requirements [required by law] — they [its board of directors] didn’t have meetings.”
In addition to not holding meetings, Pataki appears to have neglected to inform the county legislature or County Executive MaryEllen Odell that she had created PTC, which paid her $50,000 a year as its part-time executive director. She also earned $70,000 from the Visitors Bureau as the county’s tourism director.
Craig Muraszewski, co-owner of the Cold Spring General Store, said PCVB’s fiscal practices cause him concern. “It’s very hard to follow what these people are doing behind the scene,” he said, adding, “She [Pataki] was writing checks, but no one was checking. How can there be no oversight?”
Patty Villanova, owner of the Side Effects boutique, said she was disappointment that Pataki, a Garrison resident and wife of former New York Gov. George Pataki, has not been able to use her political clout to generate increased tourism spending. She also questioned Pataki’s fiscal and organizational tactics.
“When her staff bragged about getting $61,000 in state funds, the first thing I thought of was how come it’s not $610,000 or $1 million?” she said, adding that when she realized that Pataki wasn’t just “not bringing home the bacon, but was double-dipping … [it] caused me a great deal of consternation, to put it mildly.”
Villanova said that instead of creating a tourism agency funded by tax dollars and with government oversight, checks and balances, “our legislators decided to turn it over to a sketchy non-profit corporation that is not subject to the same scrutiny under the FOIL [Freedom of Information Law] and Open Meetings Law that every other agency is.”
Although Go-Go Pops co-owner Lynn Miller said she feels that people may be “making a bigger scandal out of something that in the larger scheme of things isn’t a lot of money,” she said she is concerned about how PCVB spends its funds. “Openness and transparency is what really needs to be strived for.”
Overall, merchants expressed little knowledge of the finances of the organization whose main job it is to promote their businesses. “I don’t know where the money goes,” said Kismet owner Caryn Cannova. “I don’t know how much money is spent, which is a shame. We should know.”
Beyond PCVB’s fiscal practices, business owners also pointed to inadequate tourism spending as a major concern, especially in light of the fact that a majority of the county’s tourist attractions are located in Philipstown — from extremely popular hiking trails and the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival at Boscobel to the historic village of Cold Spring and the Hudson River itself.
“I’ll be candid with you,” said Anthoine at the Cold Spring Area Chamber, “I think the lion’s share of tourism dollars should come here because this is where the tourists come — there’s no tourism on [the east] side of the county to speak of.”
At the Cold Spring General Store, Muraszewski agreed. “We are a very large attraction,” he said. “There should be a lot of focus on Philipstown. Putnam County Tourism should be focusing on where people are visiting, where the money’s being spent, where [tourism] money is being made … which is here, in Cold Spring.”
Villanova was more blunt. “Putnam spends a pittance on tourism, less than $300,000, including salaries, while our neighbors in Dutchess and Westchester spend millions.”
Though highly critical on some issues, Villanova also has praise for both PCVB and Pataki. “Given the small amount of money they had to work with … I feel that the Visitor’s Bureau has done a good job for Cold Spring in recent years,” she said. “Libby has been as generous as she could be given the demands placed on her by the eastern side of the county.”
She listed marketing, radio advertising and funding for Cold Spring’s Christmas lighting as examples of that support. “They were the only agency that provided us with money and tourism services,” she said. “People need to know that.”
Anthoine also sees positive aspects in the local relationship with PCVB. “We’ve had a lot of support from the beginning,” she said. “I’ve been working with Libby since the Pedal Into Spring event in 2013,” an event she described as a success for Cold Spring. “And last summer they contributed $2,000 to the music series and were our biggest contributor. We and the Merchants Association rely on the Visitors Bureau to support specific initiatives.”
Merchants agreed that PCVB has dropped the ball when it comes to communications. “I’m baffled as to why there’s been no real connection between the tourism bureau and the merchants,” said Leonora Burton, owner of The Country Goose. “There’s nothing.” At Kismet, Cannova added: “I actually have no idea what [PCVB] does. I have not had anyone come to me and say …‘We’re going to promote this; this is where your dollars are going.’ I haven’t spoken to anyone [from PCVB] in years.”
Lynn Miller suggested PCVB needs “better communications and some interest not just in Cold Spring as a whole but the individuals who make up our business sector.” Tourism, she said, would best be served by a “collaboration between business owners, municipalities and the tourism office so that it works well for everybody.”
Members of the business community also identified inadequate planning as an issue. None of the merchants interviewed knew whether PCVB has developed a long-term strategic plan to lure tourists to the area. “There should definitely be a marketing strategy, [especially] if there are two offices that … promote tourism within Putnam County,” said Muraszewski.
“There has to be planning” at the county level, said Anthoine, “The kind of planning that is months ahead.” She said the Cold Spring Area Chamber is trying to be more strategic, “and to the extent that we can include the county tourism office that would be very helpful,” adding that conversations with PCVB about how to make that happen began last fall.
The merchants who were interviewed listed numerous ideas that they feel should be considered in planning for a more thriving local tourism sector, from working more closely with Metro-North, special promotions at Grand Central Station and increased television advertising to a more dynamic and well-maintained website, inclusion of Philipstown attractions in brochures distributed on the New York State Thruway and extensive use of social media, including increased advertising on Facebook.
A call for action
While shop owners had no trouble suggesting positive steps that PCVB could take to promote tourism in Philipstown, at least one former member of the business community called for more drastic action. Dave Cooke, now a resident of Cape Cod, owned two Main Street antique shops for many years and developed the highly successful Cold Spring Antiques Show. He also served as tour director of the Tour de Putnam cycling event and was a board member with PCVB for 16 years.
“I don’t know if there are or were any improprieties concerning the Visitors Bureau and Ms. Pataki,” Cooke wrote in an email to The Paper/Philipstown.info. “but I do have serious doubts and concerns as to her ability to promote tourism.” Prime examples, he said, are “the dysfunctional tourism website and Ms. Pataki’s inability to promote the county or an event.” He also cited “two disastrous bicycle races that cost many thousands of dollars to put on” as further examples of mismanagement.
“What needs to happen going forward is get rid of everyone in the current tourism office, interview and hire competent people who have knowledge of tourism, who know how to promote the county and, for sure, have experience, especially for the kind of money involved,” Cooke wrote.