Council Questions Beach Visitors Info Center Contract
by Carl Wagenfohr
CLEARWATER - A plan by Clearwater's Economic Development department to continue, rather than competitively bid, the contract for the operation of the Beach Visitor Information Center (VIC) was questioned by the City Council during their worksession on Monday.
Controversy surrounds the history of the VIC. Built in 2002 at Pier 60, it took the place of a small area carved out of the Municipal Marina building that had been run by the Clearwater Beach Chamber of Commerce. The city released a Request For Proposal (RFP) in March 2002 for operation of the new facility, but received only one response, that from the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Rather than submit a bid, the Beach Chamber formally protested the bid process. "The RFP's proposed structuring of operations does not, in our opinion, meet the needs of today's tourists and it does not clearly define the purpose of this new VIC," they wrote in the protest letter.
Because of a requirement in the RFP to "link the Beach VIC with the existing Welcome Center on State Road 60", the Beach Chamber also wrote in their protest, "We feel that the RFP was drafted so as to exclude the Beach Chamber from participating…" The Welcome Center was, and continues to be, operated by the Regional Chamber.
Despite the protest, the then-sitting City Commission awarded the Beach VIC contract to the Regional Chamber.
The contract called for the Regional Chamber to operate the VIC, with the city providing a cash subsidy of $43,338 per year plus annual in-kind contributions of $4,500. But the RFP also called for bidders to include a plan on "how the VIC will evolve to be self-supporting within 2 years," eliminating the city subsidy.
In their RFP response, the Regional Chamber claimed, "our proposal provides a method of reducing, and possibly ultimately eliminating, the city's ongoing subsidy of visitor information services." And in 2003 and 2004, the Regional Chamber backed up its claim by returning to the city $18,915 and $17,216 respectively, those amounts largely the profits from the sale of Busch Gardens and Sea World tickets to beach visitors.
But in 2005, the Regional Chamber's return to the city took a nosedive to $3,237, and through May of the 2006 fiscal year, the Regional Chamber has returned only $5,140. Financial records maintained by the city reveal that VIC revenues remained flat from 2004 to 2005 at about $71,000, but operating expenses grew from $97,059 to $111,756 in the same period, reducing profit to the meager $3,237 that was returned to the city.
Beth Coleman, President of the Regional Chamber and its only spokesperson, guessed that the increase in expenses was attributable to employee salaries. Coleman was unable to provide additional details because she was out of town attending to a family emergency.
During Monday's worksession, Director of Economic Development and Housing Gerri Campos-Lopez asked for the City Council's approval for extending the Regional Chamber's management agreement for the Beach VIC by two months "to coincide with the city's fiscal year", and explained "our intent is to roll these services into the [Regional] Chamber's annual tourism agreement." The current VIC contract expires on July 31 of this year.
Mayor Frank Hibbard asked Campos-Lopez, "That still gets bid on occasion, does it not?" She replied, "No, it does not. It's a sole-source because of the specific type of services that are provided."
"So how are we going to ensure accountability, that we're getting the most for our money?" Hibbard asked. Campos-Lopez responded that the Regional Chamber provides reports on the services they provide.
"So, do we have a performance evaluation that we go through on an annual basis with them?" Hibbard asked. "Not anything formal," Campos-Lopez replied.
Hibbard commented that the only way the city can ensure it is getting "the most bang for our buck" is by competitive bidding. City Manager Bill Horne explained "everybody's comfortable with the annual tourism contract that comes up every year and you all have the opportunity to question [it]."
Horne asked Hibbard, "Do you have some indication that the Beach Chamber is interested in bidding on this?" "I've heard rumblings at times that they'd be interested in bidding again," Hibard replied.
Councilmember George Cretekos suggested that staff contact the two chambers to determine their interest in operating the Beach VIC, and report their findings back to the Council. Councilmember Paul Gibson and Hibbard agreed.
The Beach Chamber did not wait to be contacted. In a letter to the Mayor and Council the next day, they wrote, "The Clearwater Beach Chamber of Commerce is most interested in having input into the Request for Proposal for the management of the Clearwater Beach Visitor Information Center and to enter into a contract with the city to manage the VIC."
A public discussion of the Beach VIC contract is on tonight's City Council agenda.
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