Committee approves concept after bureau disbands
By Holly Crocco
Facing a deadline to receive $68,000 in state funding, Putnam County is acting quickly to create its own tourism agency and bring the position of tourism director under its authority.
The decision comes after the nonprofit Putnam County Visitors’ Bureau abruptly, and without informing the county, ceased operations last month. The county had placed a help-wanted ad to hire a new tourism director, which board members said in a statement had blindsided them.
During a meeting on July 23 of the Legislature’s Economic Development Committee, lawmakers voted to designate the county as the Putnam County Tourist Promotion Agency so it can receive matching funds for 2019 from the state’s I Love New York program and apply next month for funding for 2020. The Visitors’ Bureau had attempted to return the $68,000 to the state but was told that the county would not be able to retrieve the money if it did so.
Until a director is hired, said County Attorney Jennifer Bumgarner, the law department will handle the application process for the 2020 money.
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. The industry employs about 1,400 people and generates $4.6 million in sales tax annually. 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.
In a statement dated July 28, County Executive MaryEllen Odell said the county was “close to choosing a new results-driven director of tourism who will showcase Putnam as a destination and promote the economic growth of the county.” She said the panel would send its recommendations to her, and she would forward her choice to the Legislature for approval.
“Putnam’s natural beauty sells itself,” she said, “but the new tourism director will work with stakeholders throughout the county and be better able to entice visitors.”
She added that the transition from the nonprofit Putnam County Visitors’ Bureau to a county agency would be “swift and seamless” and highlighted Tilly Foster Farm and Magazzino Italian Art in Philipstown.
The Legislature contributed $227,000 in funding for the Visitors’ Bureau in 2019 which, with the state money, made up nearly the entire budget for the nonprofit, which used county office space and resources.
Bumgarner explained that the candidate list for the tourism director position has been narrowed down from about 20 applicants to four finalists who were interviewed last week by a committee that includes Legislator Ginny Nacerino, Putnam County Finance Commissioner Bill Carlin Jr., Deputy Commissioner of Highways and Facilities John Tully, and Putnam County Golf Course General Manager Mike McCall.
During an Audit Committee meeting held on July 24, legislators approved budgeting $85,000 for the tourism director’s salary, plus benefits. The job was advertised by the county at a salary of $75,000 to $85,000 annually.
Whomever is hired to fill the seat will need to act quickly, Bumgarner said, because the 2019 state matching funds need to be spent by Dec. 31.
Legislator Nancy Montgomery (D-Philipstown) said she was not comfortable moving so quickly to hire a tourism director under the direction of County Executive MaryEllen Odell, citing the “failings” of the past three directors.
“This has been a failing organization since this administration has been overseeing it,” said Montgomery. “I don’t know enough about it right now to, again, hand it over to this administration, which is what we’re doing.”
Longtime director Valerie Hickman stepped down in 2012 shortly after Odell took office. That year, Odell tapped Libby Pataki, a Garrison resident who is 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 Bruce Conklin, a native of Putnam Valley, in March 2017.
Legislators say they were unhappy with Conklin’s performance, but the Visitors’ Bureau board said in a statement that he had “hit the ground running” and done great work.
Montgomery pointed out that as recently as earlier this month lawmakers were talking about their options for the direction of tourism, and now they were being told a new director is about to be hired.
“We’ve seen very poor oversight for this agency on this government’s level, and I’m not ready to see this government take this over,” she said.
Bumgarner, however, said it was not Odell who hired the prior directors, but the Putnam County Visitors’ Bureau.
“From a legal perspective, she [Odell] had no authority to hire or appoint anybody on behalf of a separate, private, not-for-profit corporation,” said Bumgarner. “So she didn’t hire those people; they were hired specifically by the board.”
(According to the Visitors’ Bureau tax filings, while the board selected its executive director, he or she must be approved by the Legislature.)
Bumgarner said that was at the heart of the frustration for the county, because the Legislature had no legal authority to dictate any changes to the Visitors’ Bureau except when it was time to renew its annual contract.
Legislator Carl Albano (R-Carmel) said moving forward with an in-house tourism department was the right decision.
“We should act on this,” he said. “There’s monies that need to be spent by the end of the year. And tourism does benefit everyone in the county. This isn’t ideally for one town or one specific area — it’s the whole county.”
Nacerino (R-Patterson) added: “It’s time for us to have some control. It’s time for us to have some accountability.”
The matter will go to the full Legislature for a vote at its Aug. 6 meeting.