Walton tourism agency, commissioners meet with bed tax collectors to discuss future of TDC

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News
Cars fill the parking lot of a vacation rental condominium complex in Miramar Beach on Wednesday. A group of bed tax collectors in Walton County attended a Tuesday joint meeting of the Tourist Development Council and Board of County Commissioners with questions and comments about an array of tourism-related issues.

SANTA ROSA BEACH — A group of Walton County's bed tax collectors has urged the Walton County Board of County Commissioners to set high standards for whoever replaces fired Walton County Tourist Development Council (TDC) Executive Director Jay Tusa, and to move the county away from the perception that the post has only a short-term future, in order to attract high-caliber candidates.

That discussion was just one focus of a 90-minute Tuesday joint meeting of the County Commission and the TDC board also attended by a number of the county's bed tax collectors. The meeting was something of a compromise with the bed tax collectors, the owners and operators of short-term vacation rental housing and other accommodations who collect a 5% tax paid by visitors to South Walton. 

Background: Walton commission terminates contract of TDC Executive Director Jay Tusa

Earlier: Bed tax collectors have questions for the Tourist Development Council

In the wake of Tusa's firing, a group of bed tax collectors had originally asked for a meeting with the TDC board to discuss issues ranging from Tusa's firing to the amount of money spent on marketing the county to tourists to whether TDC counsel Clay Adkinson has conflicts of interest connected with his service as the county's interim counsel and counsel for other local governmental entities.

Commissioners refused to set up that meeting, but did offer Tuesday's joint session, with an agenda limited to discussion of bed tax dollars and the commission's plans to fill the vacant TDC director position.

The TDC and its board decide how to use the millions of bed tax dollars collected annually, which routinely go toward everything from marketing the county to funding a lifeguard program to working to develop infrastructure to enhance the experiences of visitors to the county.

In general, the bed tax collectors who attended Tuesday's session were appreciative of the joint meeting, but wondered why it had taken so long for it to be set up. 

Tusa's contract was terminated by a surprise 3-2 May vote of the County Commission. Commissioners Mike Barker, William "Boots" McCormick and Danny Glidewell voted to fire Tusa, while Commissioners Tony Anderson and board Chairman Trey Nick were opposed.

'We need to up our game'

In the days since Tusa's ouster, the TDC has proceeded under a commission-approved scenario under which Jason Cutshaw, the TDC's administrative director, has been serving as interim executive director, and Brian Kellenberger, the TDC's director of beach operations, also has taken on a broader leadership role. Both men are reporting to the county government administration rather than to commission, as had been the case with Tusa and previous TDC directors.

Among the TDC board members urging the commission to set high sights for a new executive director was Scott Russell of Russell Vacation Rentals in Miramar Beach.

"I just think we need to up our game," Russell told commissioners after noting that the TDC executive director "is the face of tourism of a very high-level destination."

Russell told commissioners that the open position should be advertised widely to bring in top-tier candidates.

“This should be a position that when people nationwide, especially now, see that it’s open, it should garner a lot of attention," he said.

Joining Russell was Jeanne Dailey, the founder, CEO and sole owner of Newman-Dailey Resort Properties Inc., a major local vacation rental operator.

"The biggest problem I've had with this is the revolving door for executive directors," Dailey told commissioners.

According to information from the meeting, the TDC has had three executive directors in the past decade.

'How can we attract good talent ...?'

“It does make it difficult to bring in the best talent to run our destination," Dailey said. “How can we attract good talent if they can’t come here and know that they’re going to have a job?”

Dailey praised Cutshaw and Kellenberger for their work, but added that "it's a tremendous budget that they're responsible for." The TDC's current budget, according to county figures, is more than $30 million.

"It's a lot of responsibility," Dailey continued, "so we have to have an extremely strong, capable, competent individual.”

For its part, the commission is working through the remainder of the tourist season under its currently established arrangement. At some point after the end of the season, commissioners will decide whether to continue on that path or advertise for a new executive director.

Glidewell hinted strongly Tuesday that the current arrangement could continue after the end of this tourist season.

“I think they (Cutshaw and Kellenberger) should be afforded the opportunity to continue just as long as they wish to," Glidewell said. "I’m very proud of them, and I think they will continue to do a good job.”

Other commissioners were a bit more circumspect.

“As to who the executive director may be," McCormick said, "I can tell you from this commissioner, I have not made that decision. We'll make that decision after the season is over ... ."

And in the face of some pressure from Russell and TDC Chairwoman Jennifer Frost of the Vacasa vacation rental company, for TDC board involvement in selecting a new executive director, Nick said, “Your involvement would be a part of the process” in narrowing down any field of candidates.

Also at issue Tuesday was the amount of money the TDC is spending on marketing the county. Earlier this year, some confusion arose as to whether the TDC was required to spend 40% of its revenue on marketing the county. But as explained previously by Adkinson and repeated by him Tuesday, that provision of state law applies only when TDC dollars are used for specific infrastructure projects, and is not currently applicable to Walton's TDC.

Visitors crowd the beach along Scenic Gulf Drive in South Walton County on Wednesday. A group of the county's bed tax collectors on Tuesday indicated the need for robust marketing expenditures by the county's Tourist Development Council to ensure that the county remains a destination for higher-end visitors.

'Keep the right people coming ...'

Nonetheless, bed tax collectors at Tuesday's meeting made it clear to the commission, which approves each year's TDC budget, that they want robust marketing expenditures from the TDC in high-end publications and affluent tourist markets, in large part to ensure that the average daily rates charged for accommodations are high to ensure the county attracts high-end tourists.

Gary Brielmayer, general manager of the Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa, told commissioners  that it is "important for us to all keep our rates up to attract the right people and keep the right people coming to this county.”

Suzanne Harris, who operates the Edgewater condominium resort in Miramar Beach, told commissioners that a robust marketing expenditure aimed at higher-end tourists is important not only for accommodation providers, but also for other tourism-related businesses like restaurants.

“The class of people that we are getting now is not exactly what we would like to hope for," Harris said. "Yes, our daily rates are high, but we are also getting two and three families in one condominium."

Noting that she spends money separately from the TDC on advertising in Garden & Gun, a high-end Southern lifestyle magazine, and on TV in affluent markets, Harris said that next year, with ocean cruises and places like Disney World opening more widely in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, competition for higher-end tourist dollars will be tougher.

"We've got to have the people here who aren’t cooking out on the gas grills and aren’t eating out just one day a week,” Harris said. “That’s Panama City. That's not who we are now."

In other business at Tuesday's joint meeting, there was some discussion of changing the name of the Walton County Tourist Development Council to differentiate the tourism organization itself from the board that oversees it.

Technically, the term TDC refers only to the board, but the term also has been used interchangeably as the title for the organization. One possibility considered Tuesday was changing the name of the organization to the Walton County Destination Marketing Organization, while leaving the name of the Walton County Tourist Development Council in place to serve as the identifier for the TDC board.

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