The Penticton and Wine Country Chamber of Commerce’s oversight of tourism, economic development and visitor information services will cease as of the end of the year, after a handful within their own ranks launched a competing bid under a separate entity to win the contract.
During a special council meeting Friday, council voted to award the Penticton Business Development Group — which has yet to be registered as a non-profit entity — the contract worth $519,375 to provide the three services.
The city had issued a request for proposals (RFP) in August, seeking proponents to manage and operate the three services out of the municipally owned building at 553 Railway St. The successful proponent would also have access to approximately $450,000 in hotel room taxes for tourism and marketing initiatives.
The contract is for one year, effective in the new year, and includes a clause that permits possible extension. The decision was brought out of in-camera discussion Friday for the vote, which passed unanimously with no discussion by councillors.
Mayor Dan Ashton explained that current staff would have positions under the new contract. The centre and its staff will work under the auspices of a chief executive officer, who remains to be hired. A city-appointed advisory board based on the group’s recommendations will function as the overseeing body.
“At this point I’d like to thank the chamber for their years of dedicated service,” he said.
After the meeting, three individuals behind the development group identified themselves — Judy Poole, Andy Oakes and Jim Dunlop — and said there were eight signatories in total behind the organization which will be registered as soon as possible.
Once the advisory board is appointed, they said, it can then begin the task of finding a CEO. They affirmed that existing staff will have a position at the visitors centre, but employees would be placed on a fourth-month probation period to allow the new CEO a greater window for evaluation. The group is also not contractually bound to maintain the existing number of employees.
“We have an alternate vision. We had a different governance model in mind,” Poole said.
She explained that some business owners in the community were leaning to models in Kelowna and Vernon that make tourism and economic development as “independent, standalone organizations with their own CEO.”
Up until this fall, Poole had been a director on the chamber of commerce board, when the chamber began its discussion around submitting a bid to the city to manage the services.
“I was in conflict, definitely, during that time. I did not feel that the chamber should put in a bid,” she said. “While they were doing that, I stepped back from my duties as director.”
Jason Cox, the chamber president, said the directors board posted a narrow vote in favour of submitting a bid, given it was a departure from the advocacy role many chambers of commerce in B.C. and Canada play.
“There was some discussion as to whether these services actually distract us from our actual mandate of being advocates for our members,” he said, adding there was a financial component to their hesitation with an RFP on a set-dollar contract that did not allow for increasing costs.
“Upon further investigation as we prepared this bid, we discovered if these things broke even we were lucky, and the chamber membership was likely subsidizing the delivery of these services,” Cox said.
Penticton chief administrative officer Annette Antoniak said the value of the contract remained the same as stated in the RFP, and no additional funds would be provided to accommodate the new position. She said the chamber had levied a $60,000 fee for their services, and the business group had indicated that amount would be set aside for the CEO’s salary.
Cox, however, contended that $60,000 administration fee won’t go far enough for a new group, given the chamber is taking its infrastructure like computer hardware and office supplies like photocopiers and service staff with them.
“If they’ve got to get computers, photocopiers, a CEO and a secretary, I just don’t know where they’re getting all that money,” he said, adding a third of those admin funds went to bookkeeping. “I don’t know what kind of CEO they’re going to get for $40,000 a year.”
Cox said the news doesn’t come as a complete surprise, as the tender process “meant that there was always a possibility of another group that could convince council to try them on for size.”
The chamber now has to look forward, he said, looking for a new physical space for the new year and reverting back to its advocacy role. Cox said the chamber is waiting for transition meetings with the city and the business group for directions on how to proceed in the final two months ahead when faced with decisions that will impact 2012.
“I wish them luck. I suspect it will be an interesting year,” he said of the startup group, suggesting a hint of concern about moving forward on existing projects that will “be on hold until they have a structure in place.
“We will execute our responsibilities faithfully until the end of the year. But we’re not in the position, for example, to make budgetary decisions if someone else is running it.”
Poole said she wasn’t concerned about startup costs eating into the budget, but did indicate the new organization would leave purchases and planning to the CEO to be hired.
“Our approach is a lot different. We are not doing some of the mass marketing buys that tourism was doing before. We’re going to be funding events and that sort of thing, that’s going to be our priority,” she said. “We will hold off on those major decisions until the CEO is in place.”