ENCINITAS — The Chamber of Commerce breathed a collective sigh of relief when City Council approved a contract to continue operating the visitor’s center on April 15.
Despite criticism for failure to meet the terms of its contract to operate the city’s visitors center and promote tourism, the chamber was awarded a one-year renewal for $80,400. The previous contract was $91,500 a year for three years.
The 3-2 vote, with Mayor Maggie Houlihan and Councilwoman Teresa Barth opposing the contract renewal, came after intense debate.
According to city officials, the chamber violated the contract in several ways without giving notice to the council. The chamber closed the visitors center at 859 Second Street on weekends without prior authorization, failed to maintain an updated Web site, did not reveal staff turnover and distributed outdated promotional materials. Operating hours during the week were also diminished.
Ken Gross, the chamber board of directors president, did not dispute the allegations made during the meeting. However, he indicated that previous leadership was to blame for the inadequate operation of the visitors center. “We recognize that some of the past actions have not been the most favorable,” he told the council. “We do have some new board members, some new blood.”
The contract also required regular visitors center advisory committee meetings. None has ever been held according to city officials.
City Manager Phil Cotton requested a business plan from the chamber in June 2008, but one was not submitted until this month.
“This stuff has floated up through the grapevine,” Houlihan said. “The city was never given notice of any of these changes.”
Houlihan suggested the council withhold the funds until an audit is complete and a new CEO is in place. Gary Tucker resigned as the executive director in February, citing differences with the board and a desire to take a more entrepreneurial professional path.
“Without staff, what is the money being spent on?” Houlihan asked in a later interview. “I support the chamber’s goals but we’re talking about taxpayer dollars here and we need accountability.”
Gross told the council the board has plans to hire staff, improve the Web site and update publications, although he did not specify a timeline.
Barth suggested the contract to operate the visitors center be offered to other entities through a public bidding process.
However, Councilman Jerome Stocks said the city’s investment of $70,377 in tenant improvements to the new building that houses the visitors center would be wasted if the contract with the chamber was terminated.
Councilman James Bond said new leadership at the chamber would rectify the past failures and put the visitors center on track. “There’s a new sheriff in town,” he said.