Putnam Names Tourism Director

Former nonprofit executive and Carmel native lands job

By Chip Rowe

Tracey Walsh, a lifelong Carmel resident and former executive with the American Cancer Society, is the latest director of tourism for Putnam County.

Tracey Walsh

She is the fifth person to hold the job since County Executive MaryEllen Odell took office, following the departure of Valerie Hickman in 2012, the resignation of Libby Pataki in 2016 after an investigation by the state attorney general, and the departures of Frank Smith in 2017 and, most recently, Bruce Conklin in June when the nonprofit Putnam County Visitors’ Bureau unexpectedly disbanded.

The county Legislature on Tuesday (Aug. 6) voted unanimously to establish its own Department of Tourism rather than fund another nonprofit. The Visitors’ Bureau board said its decision to close came after its members saw a help-wanted ad placed by the county looking for a new tourism director.

The appointment of Walsh does not yet need to be approved by the county Legislature, according to County Attorney Jennifer Bumgarner. Because legislators last week voted only to approve a budgetary amendment, Walsh was hired as a regular county employee, not as tourism director.

However, the Rules Committee on Aug. 13 will be addressing a charter change to officially create a Tourism Department, which would be overseen by the tourism director, “who shall be appointed by the county executive subject to confirmation by the County Legislature,” according to the resolution.

Although Legislator Nancy Montgomery (D-Philipstown) voted on Aug. 6 with her colleagues to create the Tourism Department, she said on July 23 she was not comfortable moving so quickly to hire a director who would answer to Odell.

“This has been a failing organization since this administration has been overseeing it,” she said. “I don’t know enough about it right now to, again, hand it over to this administration, which is what we’re doing.”

On Aug. 6, Montgomery said that while she supports the change of course for tourism in Putnam, she will be watching closely to see that all municipalities in the county receive their fair share of funds. “I do think this is a better solution” than having an outside agency handle tourism promotion, she said.

Odell and other county officials said Conklin, a Putnam Valley native, was ineffective. The Visitors’ Bureau board said it was more than happy with his performance. The Legislature also complained that the board was not responsive to its questions about the organization’s finances.

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 this month.

The Legislature budgeted $227,000 in funding for the Visitors’ Bureau in 2019 which, with the state money, made up nearly its entire budget.

The county received about 20 applications for the director job, according to Bumgarner. A committee that included Legislator Ginny Nacerino (R-Patterson), Putnam County Finance Commissioner Bill Carlin Jr., Deputy Commissioner of Highways and Facilities John Tully, and Putnam County Golf Course General Manager Mike McCall selected four finalists and sent its recommendations to Odell, who appointed Walsh.

Walsh, a Carmel High School and Syracuse University graduate who spent the past nine years at the American Cancer Society, most recently as senior community development manager, brings “deep knowledge of the county and a clear vision for its potential,” said Odell in a statement. “Sometimes the perfect person is someone close to home.”

Odell appointed Walsh on Wednesday, the day after the Legislature’s vote. She will earn $80,000 annually.

“We can do better at tourism and I think we will,” said Joseph Castellano (R-Mahopac), who chairs the Legislature, in a statement. “It will be better to have a Putnam County employee that will be able to attend our meetings and listen to our concerns and hopefully we can point this person in the right direction.”

Walsh said in a statement that she plans “to leverage the county’s assets — five Metro-North stops, unique shops and restaurants, active community arts groups — to lure day-trippers and more to Putnam. This county is a gem. Tilly Foster Farm is a jewel. The Great Swamp is a birder’s paradise. Cold Spring offers a vibrant Main Street. From hiking to history, there is just so much here.”

Like the nonprofit before it, the county Tourism Department will be funded by county funds and a matching $68,000 grant from the state’s I Love NY campaign. The Legislature transferred the state funds to the department immediately after its vote on Tuesday to establish it.

Holly Crocco contributed reporting.

2 Responses to "Putnam Names Tourism Director"

  1. Patty Villanova   August 9, 2019 at 9:41 pm

    Well this is interesting! Judging by the reports from local media, the county tourism department, formerly known as the Visitors’ Bureau, is in a state of disarray and left its website, social media connections, state grant money applications and who knows what else out of commission. Nobody at the county seemed quite sure what needs to be done since the last director didn’t seem to be around that much or especially communicative.

    Here in Cold Spring, which is the county’s only real 365-day-a-year tourist destination, we could use some help from the apparatchiks in Carmel to bolster our own self-supported efforts on Main Street. People seem to forget that in return for not sharing sales tax with the towns, the county is obliged to provide services to our communities, including in this case, financial help for promotion, marketing, advertising, events, etc. Example: We’ve been trying to get a billboard back on Route 9 that says “Shop Cold Spring” and it would be great if the county could pay for it out of the tourism budget.

    One might think that under the circumstances, the Powers that Be would want a director with a tourism or travel background, who’s familiar with the existing state of affairs, and who could hit the ground running as we approach peak tourist season in September/October. (Note: that someone could have been me, since I applied for the job and was one of the finalists). Apparently they had other ideas and it will be interesting to find out what political forces were at work behind the scenes. Since there was no written test or other metric that would measure merit, it is not clear how Ms. Walsh was chosen for this plum position. Magic 8 Ball? Tarot cards? Tea leaves? Your guess is as good as mine.

    Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like there must be a better way. But then again, what could possibly go wrong?

    Reply
  2. Patty Villanova   August 13, 2019 at 10:23 am

    It’s very disheartening to see that apparently, there are only two people who care that the taxpayer-funded tourism agency is still not even remotely up and running.

    I see hundreds of congratulatory messages for Ms. Walsh on Facebook but nothing promoting tourism. The website is still down too. From what I can see, Putnam tourism has been de-platformed (deliberately) for weeks, during the height of the tourism season.

    This situation is especially unfair to Cold Spring which is the only real tourist attraction in the County. We are OWED services in lieu of a share of sales tax, but I don’t see one of our elected officials going to bat for us to demand the support we are entitled to.

    Now we will be supporting another $80K position in a department that will be managed by a bunch of legislators who are clueless when it comes to promoting tourism and Main Street businesses. Once again, it is the taxpayers and stakeholders, the people who are most invested in our community, who will bear the brunt of this situation. Where’s the outrage?

    Reply

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