Putnam Visitors’ Bureau Disappears (Updated)

County considers hiring its own tourism director

By Chip Rowe

The Putnam County Visitors’ Bureau unexpectedly shut down earlier this month after the county placed an ad for a new executive director — allegedly without telling the bureau it was looking for one.

County Attorney Jennifer Bumgarner on July 10 told legislators that she had been notified by the state that the Visitors’ Bureau had attempted to return $68,000 in grant money and said in its cover letter it was closing shop.

Further, Bumgarner said, the website at visitputnam.org was taken offline (the bureau’s social media accounts remain, with a post to Facebook as recently as July 3); an email sent to Executive Director Bruce Conklin bounced; and, when she walked over to the agency’s office on the third floor of the county office building in Carmel, she found it had been cleared out and the keys left on a desk.

“There’s been no formal notification to anyone that this is what they were doing,” she said.

On Monday (July 15), Kevin Callahan, the chair of the board that oversaw the nonprofit agency, issued a statement on Visitors’ Bureau letterhead in which he said that the board was taken aback when the county in late May placed a help-wanted ad for a new executive director. Callahan said the Visitors’ Bureau board had been more than happy with Conklin.

Kevin Callahan, chair of the Putnam County Visitors’ Bureau (File photo)

Although the board selects the director, the hiring and salary must be approved by the county Legislature, according to the bureau’s federal tax filings. The bureau, which operates under contract with the county and has an annual budget of about $270,000, is funded almost entirely by county and state grants.

The Visitors’ Bureau has been the subject of drama throughout the tenure of County Executive MaryEllen Odell. Odell took office in November 2011 and not long after that longtime Visitors’ Bureau Director Valerie Hickman stepped down. Odell quickly tapped Libby Pataki of Garrison, a former first lady of New York, to lead the bureau.

In early 2016, the state attorney general opened an inquiry after The Journal News reported that Pataki had in 2012 quietly created a charity, Putnam Tourism Corp., that was soliciting donations and paying her a $50,000 salary — in addition to her $70,000 salary from the Visitors’ Bureau — without active oversight from a board of directors, as required by state law.

Pataki resigned in March 2016, and former intern Frank Smith was named acting director. A new volunteer board of directors was created with guidance from the attorney general’s office; the board hired Conklin, a native of Putnam Valley, in March 2017.

Tourism generates $63 million annually in spending in Putnam County, according to the most recent report compiled for New York State by a firm called Tourism Economics. That includes $5.3 million on lodging, $8.8 million on recreation, $23 million on food and beverages, $10.8 million on retail, and $3.2 million on transportation.

Bruce Conklin soon after he was hired in 2017  (File photo)

In Putnam, the industry employs about 1,400 people and generates $4.6 million in sales tax annually, the report said. Tourism revenue grew 6 percent between 2015 and 2016 but only 1 percent the following year. The latest data, for 2018, is expected in August.

Although the Legislature approved $227,000 in funding for the bureau for 2019, Callahan said in his statement that the board and county had not finalized a contract.

He said that in March, two unnamed legislators and Bumgarner asked to speak with the board. (Callahan asked that questions about his statement, such as the identity of the legislators, be sent by email, but he did not respond further.)

“It was clear from this meeting that the Legislature was not satisfied with the performance of the executive director,” he wrote. The board asked the county for a “performance improvement plan” so it could “meet the objectives expected by the Legislature. This was never received.”

Instead, he wrote, board members saw the county’s help-wanted ad, which promised a salary of $75,000 to $85,000 annually. It was published in local newspapers designated for public notices on May 29, June 5 and June 12, but included a June 7 deadline for applications.

Callahan said board members concluded that the county planned to bring the tourism agency “in-house” rather than operating it under contract. “In anticipation of this change, and in deference to the executive director,” the board dissolved the nonprofit, he wrote.

He said the board sent a check to the state for the matching funds it had received but was told that returning the money would make it impossible for the county to reapply in 2019. The check was returned and voided, he wrote, so that a check made payable to Putnam County could be issued and the county could operate as a state-approved tourism promotion agency.

Callahan said the Visitors’ Bureau planned to pay its outstanding bills, file its final tax returns and return any unspent funds to the county.

The tourism board was chaired from its formation in 2016 until March of this year by Barney Molloy, a former Cold Spring resident who said in an email that he left in March when he moved out of the county. The most recent board members listed on the website before it disappeared included Callahan (of Brewster) and two other original members, Elizabeth Carson-Tompkins (Carmel) and Victoria Causa (Carmel), along with newcomers Kim Boeheim (Patterson), Rhonda Jacobius (Carmel), Joann Mailman (Carmel) and Mary Cay Nilsen (Brewster).

Callahan wrote there had been informal discussions in 2017 with Deputy County Executive Bruce Walker about combining the bureau with two similar entities, the Economic Development Corporation and the Industrial Development Agency, to create a county department. A merger could save money because each agency had its own attorney and accounting firm and two employed executive directors, he said, but the idea died after Walker resigned to take a federal job.

Bumgarner told legislators on July 10 that the county’s negotiations with the Visitors’ Bureau over the 2019 contract stalled because the county wanted a provision that would require the tourism board to provide more information about its spending and audits. “Their counsel sent me an email indicating that they wanted all those new provisions stricken,” she reported.

Getting the Word Out

The members of the board of the Putnam County Visitors’ Center “are proud of the work accomplished during the short-lived tenure of the board and are grateful to and sincerely thank their executive director [Bruce Conklin] for all his hard work and immeasurable improvements made under his auspices,” board chair Kevin Callahan wrote in his July 15 statement. “A quiet, competent man, Bruce hit the ground running.”

In his statement, Callahan listed what he said Conklin had accomplished:

Thirty thousand copies of a redesigned travel guide were distributed at rest stops on I-87, Metro-North stations, 119 locations in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, travel agencies, Amtrak, hotels and motels and AAA offices.

The bureau ramped up its use of social media.

In 2017, the Putnam County Visitors Bureau launched a new website that included a calendar of events, links to local areas of interest, and a 30-second commercial.

Television commercials aired 1,324 times in New York City, Westchester County and the Hudson Valley on 69 cable channels. Streaming services yielded 375,164 “impressions” (views) to an audience of 1.5 million subscribers. In addition, radio ads aired on a number of FM stations.

Print ads in 15 publications had 3.6 million impressions, he said, and digital ads on four sites yielded 1.54 million impressions.

Bumgarner said the county is considering whether to look for another outside agency or hire its own tourism director. Conklin is under contract with the bureau, not the county. She told legislators the county had received 21 applications in response to the ad.

Putnam County Commissioner of Finance Bill Carlin told legislators he would ask the bureau for an accounting of the money it has spent this year. “You’re not allowed to just turn your lights out and say you’re out of business,” he said. “That’s not the way it works.”

Legislator Ginny Nacerino (R-Patterson) said she supported bringing the position in-house. “We’ve been struggling for the last several years for tourism to reach its full potential,” she said.

Paul Jonke (R-Southeast) said the county needs a director who will report to the Legislature on a regular basis.

“Part of the issues we had with this Visitors’ Bureau was that they were not transparent; they were not accountable to us,” he said. “They were unwilling to provide documentation to us; to the public. And that’s when things stated to go downhill.”

(The Current also had trouble getting information from the bureau, which the county said as recently as July 17 was not one of its “agencies” subject to Freedom of Information Laws, although the county provided office space, most of its funding and had final say over the hiring of its executive director.)

Neal Sullivan (R-Mahopac) said he is disappointed in the way the bureau “unwound itself” without notifying the Legislature.

“Tourism is so critical to Putnam County,” he said. “Over the last couple of years and beyond, that has sort of been floundering — the direction of tourism — and we need to get hold of that. It makes a lot of sense that we bring that position inside the county, like a department head, under the control of the administration and us, so that we have real accountability.”

“It’s just very disheartening how this all went down and it was all totally unnecessary to do it in that way,” added Nacerino. “But maybe it’s an opportunity for us to move this forward in the direction that we’ve been wanting it to move forward for a very long time.”

Holly Crocco contributed reporting.

9 thoughts on “Putnam Visitors’ Bureau Disappears (Updated)

  1. This board has been a vehicle for corruption and posturing since it began. Public money was wasted, and certain folks, by affiliation with the board, were given credibility they didn’t deserve. The redactions, I would bet, covered the inaction. Furthermore, Philipstown drives tourism in this county, and virtually nothing came to Philipstown to offset our costs for the disproportionate amount of financial, life safety and and quality of life burden we bear for tourism. This is no loss.

  2. This is beyond outrageous and it just goes to prove the point that our wonderful county Legislators are all asleep at the wheel. How on earth can an entire agency, funded by more than $300,000 of taxpayer’s hard-earned money, just disappear?

    Our legislators each make about $45,000 a year in salary and some benefits. What the hell do they do, anyway? It’s too bad that those are not actual jobs based on merit. Instead, these important positions are filled by local popularity contests, a.k.a. “elections.”

    Bruce Conklin needs to be brought back and held accountable for what happened. Who was supervising him or was he another one who just did what he pleased and collected a paycheck?

    For years I have been documenting the problems and missteps of the Visitors Bureau, which is de facto the county tourism agency. I will say categorically that Mr. Conklin was without a doubt the worst person I ever had the misfortune to deal with in that position. For one thing, he he refused to acknowledge Cold Spring as the county’s No. 1 tourist attraction and the fact that the village is the only real source of tourists (and their money) yearround.

    I begged him to continue some of the programs that had been started and maintained by his predecessors, including Ms. Pataki, who was a good friend to Cold Spring, but he refused.

    Some of the projects that had received county funding included brochures and marketing in Grand Central and West Point, Hudson Valley maps that were put out in thousands of locations around the state, help with the holiday lights on Main Street, WHUD radio ads, etc.

    This situation is an absolute disgrace and should be dealt with in the strongest possible manner. We are now at peak tourist season in Cold Spring and one of the projects that I have been trying to get funding for is another billboard on Route 9 encouraging people to “Shop Cold Spring.” Unfortunately, Mr. Conklin did not look favorably on the idea, for reasons I could never fathom, unless it was because of some personal animus he held.

    Be that as it may. Heads should roll for this fiasco. Knowing the county people involved, I’m not holding my breath.

  3. Valerie Hickman, an experienced tourism director, was savaged by the current county executive as ineffective and ever since the bureau has, as Legislator Nacerino said, “struggled.” Shall we recount our experiences with cronyism and hype by the same county executive over the present but now AWOL tourism director? We are left with having to rely on the legislature to resurrect the tarnished Visitors Bureau. Good luck.

  4. This fits in nicely with the Legislature’s new secrecy initiative. Just think of all the time those county employees can save by not having to respond to our FOIL requests. By the way, I recently submitted a request for various records of the Visitors’ Bureau. Let’s see if I have any more luck than The Current.

  5. I would like to follow up on my previous comment today about the county and my FOIL request. I am pleasantly surprised to report that my request was answered very quickly and they provided the records that I asked for.

    More often than not, I am on these pages criticizing the county for one thing or another. Therefore, it’s only fair that when they do something right they receive credit where credit is due. Let’s hope that this kind of transparency continues.

    • What material did you request, and what did you receive? On July 17, the county responded to a FOIL request made by The Current on June 11 for the minutes of Putnam Visitors’ Bureau minutes from 2017 and 2018 (a few of which we had already received nearly completely redacted) by saying it “does not have any such documents in its possession,” and claiming that the PCVB is/was not a county agency at any rate so wouldn’t have to respond to FOIL requests.

      Chip Rowe
      Managing Editor

  6. In the past, I have done battle with the county over what information they were obliged to provide in response to my FOIL requests and I am very surprised that they are back to claiming that the Visitors Bureau was not a county agency! It seems to me we went down that road before and it was finally agreed that the VB was subject to FOIL. I will have to go back in my old emails and see if I can find the correspondence I had with the Law Department on this topic.

    The records I requested were for the names of the members of the board of directors and other financial records that were in the budget for the agency. I also requested check books, invoices, etc. or records of expenses that were paid by director Bruce Conklin.

    They gave me the names of the members of the BOD but redacted their addresses as they were allowed to do. They sent me several pages of budget documents that I am sorting through (I admit to having a hard time with the format but it looks like the info is there). As far as Mr. Conklin, they claimed that he was the only employee and that they had no records of any checks or bills he had paid. (I find that one a little strange inasmuch as he was the director and should have had access to the checkbook).

    They also advised I could appeal their “denials” to County Exec MaryEllen Odell, so I wonder if The Current will take the next step and appeal their decision with regard to the minutes of the meeting. It seems to me that these records should be accessible under the FOIL and I am surprise they would not provide them to the paper.

    I hope that this isn’t the end of the matter as I would be very interested to read the minutes as well (or to have been a fly on the wall at the meeting).

  7. I’m dismayed that the Putnam Visitors’ Bureau closed up shop, shut down visitputnam.org, and didn’t even leave digital copies of the Putnam Tourism Guide housed on the websites of the county government, Hudson Valley Tourism, the Cold Spring Area Chamber of Commerce, or the Hudson Valley Gateway Chamber of Commerce.

    Airbnb just listed the Hudson Valley and the Catskills among a list of 19 destinations to visit in the world in 2019, and in 2013 National Geographic Traveler named the Hudson Valley one of the 20 best destinations in the world. This is a big deal.

    Putnam is one of 10 Hudson Valley counties that offer visitors world-class arts and culture; outdoor recreation, ecotourism and summer camps; farm-to-table experiences; history, opportunities to learn and spiritual development; scenic spaces for weddings, conferences and special events; and unique locations for film and television productions.
    We need a Tourism Promotion Agency for the county led by someone who understands that marketing is an act of teaching. The TPA must provide context for potential visitors and act as a curator — an impresario of experiences. And, the TPA must create a film office.

    The TPA can spur economic growth by identifying small audience segments and weaving together narratives about specific experiences that Putnam offers for each of them. And, the TPA must work with Putnam sites, organizations, chambers of commerce and businesses across the entire county to find, educate and dance with those people who want to be served.

    We can boost economic development and housing sales in Putnam through the promotion of tourism and film with an ethos of sustainability. Sustainable tourism management involves partnering with New York State parks and law enforcement to teach hikers of Breakneck Ridge and the Appalachian Trail how to prepare themselves. And how do you do this? Through smart, targeted use of Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and the TPA’s website. It also involves consistent Leave No Trace messaging.

    I learned from Kelly Baquerizo, director of the state matching funds program for tourism organizations, that Putnam plans to bring its tourism office in-house as a county agency. I look forward to hearing more about the search for a new tourism director.

  8. I can’t wait to see which former Republican Party operative adds the tourism director position to the county’s roster of no-show jobs.