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Chamber, tourist council feud gets personal

The chamber president blames the Tourist Development Council's manager for the bad blood between the groups.

By BARBARA BEHRENDT
Published September 14, 2006


LECANTO - The simmering feud between the Tourist Development Council and the Citrus County Chamber of Commerce boiled over into a personal attack Wednesday at a TDC meeting.

Chamber President Kevin Cunningham blamed TDC tourism manager Mary Craven for the bad blood between the two organizations.

He said chamber officials were tired of Craven's "snide and unprofessional remarks" and said she was responsible for the "open animosity toward the chamber."

TDC Chairman Gary Bartell urged everyone to keep the discussion professional.

"Let's not get into personal attacks," he said. "If we get into personal attacks, we're going to end up defeating what we want to do."

Cunningham also argued that Craven had worked out some "side contract" with the chamber that the TDC didn't even know about.

Craven said that wasn't true, but TDC member Ed Holland stepped into the escalating debate to point out that whatever Craven did, she did with the blessing of the TDC.

A longtime chamber member and past president, Holland said that while the chamber's role in the community was important, "our role as the TDC is different from that of the chamber."

Bartell said it was time for the two groups to "bury the hatchet" and find a way to work together but that the effort would have to be "a two-way street."

The discussion is the latest episode of a convoluted drama that has unfolded over the last several months.

Cunningham made his remarks as he was urging the TDC to find a way to work with members of the chamber on a common mission to promote the county.

The TDC decided several months ago to end its long, formal relationship with the chamber by pulling a $20,000 annual payment to the organization when the contract expires at the end of this month.

Since that decision, the chamber has appointed a private citizen, Amy Virgo, as the head of its own tourism development arm.

Virgo's business, Nature Coast Tourism Development Inc., then bid to become the TDC's marketing firm, but the TDC voted instead to stick with its current marketing company, Gold & Associates, which is based in Ponte Vedra Beach.

Virgo protested the decision, and several weeks ago she appeared before the County Commission urging commissioners to hold a workshop to discuss how the county should be spending its bed tax.

She has argued the tax could help local businesses promote the county, as it has in the past.

Ultimately the commission sent the issue back to the TDC, which makes decisions on how to spend the 3 percent tax.

Virgo asked TDC members Wednesday whether they were ready to set a date for that workshop.

Bartell explained that the TDC would discuss it later in the meeting.

He said it was up to the TDC if it wanted to hold such a workshop.

Shortly after that, the TDC listened to Gold & Associates present a 2007 marketing plan. Virgo and Cunningham left the meeting before that presentation and before the discussion about the workshop.

That fact riled some TDC members.

TDC member Gail Oakes complained that a large portion of the meeting demonstrated how the TDC was accountable with the tourist tax monies and did analyze what worked in the marketing plan.

Virgo and the chamber officials didn't know that because they didn't stay to hear that part of the meeting.

TDC member Frances Roberts said that the animosity she has seen lately has been generated not by the TDC, but by the chamber.

She recently resigned as a board member of the chamber over the feud.

She also noted that there was an effort to replace several members of the TDC because they had served too long on the board.

On the issue of the workshop, Roberts suggested that it happen after January when there is new chamber leadership.

"That's part of the problem," she said.

Bartell said that before the workshop, the chamber should meet with the county attorney to learn about what state law dictates for tourist development councils.

TDC member Marc Wigmore said he wanted to see the battle between the entities end because no one was benefiting from the continuing debate.

"I see so many people who seem to want to use these boards to promote their own personal agendas, and that's not right," he said.

While chamber officials have said they want to see the bed tax spent in other ways to benefit local businesses that promote tourism, Bartell said the TDC moved away from that approach years ago.

"This board has decided to move the entire county forward and not individual groups," he said.

He and Holland acknowledged that, in its early years, the TDC didn't know where to spend its money and may have set a bad precedent then in handing over grants to Virgo and other individual businesses to promote individual events and projects.

"The board has matured," Holland said. "We're more on focus now."

After the meeting, Craven said she was "blind-sided" by Cunningham's remarks.

"My response to Mr. Cunningham is that, to an individual, the TDC is made up of busy professionals who make intelligent, well-thought-out decisions on the marketing program of the county," she said

"I regret he felt he had to make the comments that he made.

"It's a shame that the chamber is in tourism development as they say they are, yet they leave meetings and don't understand what we do."

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or 564-3621.