Members of the Tahlequah Area Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors and the local Tourism Council are discussing the possibility of combining two jobs into one.
Chamber President Steve Turner encouraged board members Tuesday morning to be prepared next month to decide how it will begin a search for a new executive director.
“Should we consider putting resources together – tourism and the chamber – to create a larger salary? Or is there greater value – do we need four boots on the ground?” Turner asked board members. “There may be some value for a while combining [positions] until we see some growth; that way there are some additional revenues to pay a higher additional salary. It may be that we say the work is too great and the needs are too diverse [for one person].”
Turner recently met with members of the Tourism Council to discuss finding a new tourist director and chamber executive director. As it stands, the Tourism Council acts as an advisory board to the chamber board, and the chamber executive director oversees the tourism director. The chamber contracts with the city to receive funding from a hotel-motel tax, which is passed on to the Tourism Council from the chamber.
Tourism Council President Dana Boren attended Tuesday morning’s monthly chamber meeting and told board members the group will meet next week to work on a strategic plan. She said the Tourism Council hopes to bring a proposal to the chamber next month, outlining how the group hopes to move forward.
“My thoughts are, they’re both the same thing,” said chamber board member JoAnn Bradley, speaking of the tourist director and chamber executive director jobs. “I would just like to see it combined. At one time, it was a combined position, years ago, I think.”
Turner said members of the Tourism Council see a variation in job duties.
“When I met with tourism, the thoughts were that the tourism director is about filling motel rooms and doing things that bring people” to Tahlequah, Turner said. “And the chamber is a much bigger, broader range – everything from manufacturing to retail. So there are different roles.”
Tahlequah Ward 4 Councilor Linda Spyres, a former member of both the chamber and tourism boards, attended Tuesday’s meeting, and said different roles exist.
“One is for business, to create business in the community, and to nourish businesses that want to come in to our area,” said Spyres.
“Tourism can be totally different. It doesn’t have anything to do with business; it has to do with visitors. I think this is an opportunity – even though it’s a disaster, in a way, for our city – to kind of look at tourism in a different way. I think this is an opportunity for the Tourism Council actually to grow into a tourism and convention center bureau. Out of chaos can come some order on that.”
Spyres said she also asked representatives of the state auditor and inspector’s office about combining the two job descriptions into one.
“They said that it would not be a good idea, that we don’t need to mingle the money – that it would actually be better if it were kept separate,” said Spyres.
Board member Anna Knight also told fellow board members she believes the two jobs are different, but said the chamber needs to find additional revenues to increase the salaries of both positions.
“Tourism, behind government, is the No. 1 industry in Tahlequah,” said Knight, “and it deserves that kind of attention. There’s enough work for a tourism person and a chamber person.”
She also suggested the roles of the chamber, Tourism Council, Main Street program and the city’s industrial authority need to be mapped out “so that we can coordinate those activities and maybe not overlap quite so much.”
Chamber Treasurer Stephen Highers suggested the decision on whether to combine job roles may depend on the candidates who apply.
“We have to truly look at the candidates’ resumes and pick the best candidate that fits us,” said Highers. “And maybe that is ultimately somebody that is more tourism-related to be the director. I’m going to slightly disagree with Councilor Spyres and say that tourism is commerce, especially in Cherokee County. It’s our cash crop, if you will; it’s kind of what supports us. A healthy tourist season and a healthy summer supports downtown and the festivals and things. Bringing those people in is what helps our businesses.”
Tahlequah Mayor Jason Nichols, an ex-officio chamber board member, suggested the two job titles can be combined.
“I think we need to look strongly at combining these spots,” said Nichols. “I was here enough to see the workflow and to see how things work, and I do believe it could be done, and I believe it could be done effectively and actually give us more bang for our buck in the long run.”
Acting Executive Director Drew Haley told board members he knows how much work is needed to carry out activities associated with local events.
“When we really dig down and start working on more of these events – which we’ve seen produce economic growth – it would be tough” with only one director, Haley said. “These festivals we do are pretty big undertakings.”
Boren told chamber board members the Tourism Council members have discussed offering quarterly or annual bonuses to the new tourism director if hotel-motel use increases.
“This is a position much like a recruiting or sales position, and so they should be measured at least quarterly, and maybe even bonused quarterly based on how we see hotel and motel growth, or ‘heads in beds,’ as I like to call it,” said Boren.
“The salary is really pretty low, although [Tourism Council board member] Donna [Tinnin] will tell you if fits in with what we’re seeing around the state. But I think for somebody to live on $36,000 a year long-term and keep them is not a great wage.”
Tinnin, who recently suggested to the Tahlequah City Council that the establishment of a convention center/visitors bureau be considered, made the same suggestion to the chamber Tuesday.
“I think it’s right, and I think it’s time,” Tinnin said. “One thing we keep talking about is the events, and those are wonderful, but we also have a wonderful opportunity with bringing in more groups, whether those are bus tours, whether those are motorcycles, or state and regional conventions. To get the heads in the beds, we’ve got more meeting space with the event center at NSU, that we would be actively pursuing to fill. Every time we bring in a group of 200 or 300 people, we know they’re buying gas and they’re buying food and they’re buying clothing and gifts and things like that. I’m just saying from a regional standpoint, for sure, that other folks in this industry feel like Tahlequah is ripe for a convention and visitors bureau.”