New tourism board a compromise solution

Penticton city councillor John Vassilaki says tourism contract is being awarded arbitrarily.

While the new tourism board is being touted as receiving broad support from the tourism community, some Penticton councillors are saying that the city was forced to accept it as a compromise.

“Here I come to a place where I am not going to make people happy,” said Coun. John Vassilaki as he moved that council re-ratify the decision to accept the new governance structure made public last week.

The contract to handle Penticton’s tourism marketing and visitor services will be awarded to a new group, Penticton and Wine Country Tourism. It will be governed by an 11-member board of directors, with six members already appointed by the Penticton Hospitality Association who are the major backers of the proposal. The other five directors represent the broader tourism community, including a representative from the city. All staff currently working in tourism marketing and the visitor centre will be rolled into the new entity, with current marketing manager Jessie Campbell being promoted to CEO of the new tourism committee to lead the creation of the new organization.

Nearly 75 tourism operators attended two meetings Friday where the new governance model was presented and, according to Campbell, received broad support. Vassilaki, however, has concerns about the makeup of the board, and how the proposal came about. He has faith that Campbell will be able to handle the position as CEO for the new tourism committee, but feels the board of directors may be lopsided.

“Her destiny is controlled by the six members of the PHA,” said Vassilaki. A previous deal with the Penticton Business Development Group collapsed last month after the PHA voted against allowing the new group to handle the $425,000 fund generated by the additional hotel room tax. The PHA expressed concerns that they were not consulted about the PBDG deal, but Vassilaki said they knew since late last summer the process was going forward and had not voiced any concerns during the proposal process or put forward a proposal themselves.

“Once the city chose the appropriate group, all hell broke loose,” said Vassilaki. “They held city council hostage for the two per cent room tax. The PHA began to derail what city council had put together with the PBDG.”

Vassilaki complained that because of the pressure from the PHA, the contract is being awarded arbitrarily, when all others who get contracts from the city all go through the regular process.

“This group, along with others, made city council look like fools by giving us an ultimatum, either their way or the highway,” he said.

While other councillors supported some of Vassilaki’s comments, they said the 11th hour proposal was the best way forward for the city, with the major tourist season coming up fast.

“We have to move it forward, any further delay would have meant a loss for all of us,” said Coun. Judy Sentes.

For the first year, the other five directors will be appointed, by Campbell and the six members already appointed by the PHA, working through expressions of interest from targeted tourism sectors.

“Next year will be a full election for all 10 positions, with the exception of the city representative,” she said, adding it will probably be a couple of weeks before they can announce the full board.

Mayor Dan Ashton said this was a challenging decision for council, though he is happy to see a resolution that was driven by the city’s tourism community.

“Tourism comes first in the city of Penticton. We have to pull together. Is this the perfect scenario? Time is going to tell,” he said, adding that it is necessary to get a strong tourism marketing program back in place in the face of strong competition for tourist dollars.

“There is an awful lot of places in the world today where tourists can go. Peaches and beaches don’t cut it anymore in Penticton,” said Ashton. “For all those years, Penticton was the jewel of the Okanagan for people to come, we’ve let it slip by.”