On Oct. 16, the county’s Tourist Development Council held a special meeting to discuss a replacement to fill and empty seat on the board but no action was taken.
Alice Collins, owner of Collins Vacation Rentals, is stepping down next month as a TDC director after eight years on the board. One of the original board members in 2005, she helped found the TDC, which promotes tourism in the county.
Three applicants applied for the empty seat: Lynn Spohrer, who owns the Coombs House Inn in Apalachicola and a rental houses in Eastpoint and on St. George Island; Walter Armistead owner of the Buccaneer Inn on St. George Island and Sun Coast Vacation Rentals and Segul Patel, general manager of the Best Western Inn in Apalachicola.
A special meeting to discuss the three applicants was advertised for 1 p.m. on Oct. 16 prior to the regular TDC marketing committee meeting scheduled for 1:30.
Only six members of the nine-member TDC board were present. Collins; Chair Pinki Jackel, the county commission representative to the TDC and Diana Prickett, rental manager for Resort Vacation Rentals on St. George Island, did not attend.
Of the three candidates for the director’s seat, only Spohrer attended the meeting. Initially, several board members suggested the special meeting be cancelled.
“I think it would be more appropriate to have a full board,” said Frank Cook, who represents Apalachicola. “There are some important board members who are absent. I would like to see the county representative (Jackel) here.”
Paul Parker, owner of Harbor Point Realty a company that manages vacation rental homes at Alligator Point, was acting chair in Jackel’s absence. “I don’t want the county commission to think we didn’t give everybody a fair shake,” he said.
However, members of the audience objected.
Spohrer asked if a quorum of the TDC board was present. Curt Blair, the TDC’s executive director, said five directors constituted a quorum.
Judi Stokowski, who works at the Water Street Hotel, said Spohrer went to considerable trouble to attend the advertised meeting, having driven back from Miami and cancelled other appointments to be there.
Spohrer said she left Miami at 4 a.m. to be present. She said the meeting had been advertised and all of the candidates and directors had an opportunity to attend.
“They all knew we were having this meeting,” said Blair. “Typically, if someone’s interested, they come.”
In a telephone interview, Patel said she learned of the meeting when Stokowski told her on the morning of Oct. 16. She wanted to attend but was unable because a member of her hotel staff failed to come to work.
The meeting was advertised in the Oct. 10 Times and an email was circulated about it. Patel said she never received the email or saw the ad.
Armistead said he was informed of the time and place of the meeting when he dropped off his application packet at the TDC office. He said it was in conflict with an existing appointment and, when he informed TDC staff he could not attend, he was told attendance was not necessary.
‘Important the hotels have a voice’
Parker allowed Spohrer to make a presentation about her qualifications for the six board members in attendance.
She emphasized her experience in international marketing. Spohrer said she has owned a home in Franklin County since 1980 and has worked hard to bring economic development to the area.
“I appreciate the hard work of the TDC,” she said. “The board is maturing now with eight years under your belt. Now we should be reaching out into new markets.”
She said the number of international tourists visiting the Coombs House is increasing and the international market should be explored. “(The hotel, motel and innkeepers) are the first responders for visitors,” Spohrer said. “We specialize in letting visitors know what there is to do.”
Spohrer thanked the TDC for hearing her presentation.
TDC board member Chester Reese, who runs a charter fishing service out of Carrabelle, accused Spohrer of making contentious and untrue accusations against the seated TDC board, possibly referring to discussion at a meeting held earlier this year at the Apalachicola Community Center to discuss the proposed doubling of the bed tax.
“Do you have the temperament to be on this board?” Reese asked. “Accusations are made and they aren’t backed up. It’s the shotgun approach and there are no hits.”
Spohrer sought to clarify her views, “We become contentious because nothing on the agenda lets us have any input,” she said. “We become negative because we are not part of the team.
“I have never accused the TDC of anything. After eight years, I felt it was important the hotels have a voice,” she said.
Spohrer is the president of a newly registered corporation called the “Guest Lodging Association of Franklin County.” Stokowski is listed as vice president of the group and Michael Koun, owner of Apalachicola’s Gibson Inn, is secretary/treasurer.
At the Oct. 2 TDC meeting, Stokowski and Spohrer made a presentation about the Guest Lodging Association and asked that the organization be recognized by the TDC. They also presented a potential amendment to the county TDC ordinance dedicating one of the seats on the board to a hotel, motel, inn or bed and breakfast.
Beverly Hewitt, who represents the Apalachicola Bay Chamber of Commerce, moved that the TDC recognize the Guest Lodging Association but the motion died for lack of a second.
The Florida statute governing TDCs states that at least three, and no more than four, members of the board must be bed tax providers. Currently, Prickett, Parker and Collins serve as bed tax representatives.
At the Oct. 16, meeting, Anita Grove, director of the Apalachicola Bay Chamber of Commerce, spoke in support of Spohrer.
“She has made five attempts to get on this board and it is very curious to me. She does have vast experience. We can’t give input without being contentious,” Grove said. “You should ask for public comments at the end of the meetings.
“You are less important than the people you represent,” Grove told Reese. “I’ve had a lot of people say how rude the TDC has been to them. I have names.”
Reese disputed the characterization. “I don’t see where you guys are getting this, to keep saying that we’re not open,” he said. “Is it just to down this council? To get someone’s specific agenda? We are open to everyone.”
Grove replied, “I’m trying to tell you the feedback I get.”
Parker said that the TDC board has never discouraged people from speaking at meetings. “People who have come and gotten involved have gotten input. It’s always been a good mix of representation from all parts of the county,” he said. “I live on the extreme east end and (the TDC is) the only thing that’s always represented the whole county. Tourism has grown 31 percent (since the inception of the TDC). I take exception to the minimization of representation of the rental companies. They represent 80 percent of the (bed tax) income. They do know what people want because they have built very successful companies.”
Spohrer agreed that, “You’ve covered that market really well. Now is the time to increase the amount provided by innkeepers to 30 percent. It’s a way for us to grow. In order for us to grow, it can’t be inbred.
“Maybe we need a forum, sitting at a round table together like a workshop, instead of this back-and-forth like a tennis match,” she said.
“That is what I believe our marketing meetings are,” said Parker.
“We set up a meeting with the local Apalachicola lodging providers for just that purpose,” said Blair. “I spent two hours being attacked. Nobody wanted to talk about what kind of marketing we could do together.”
Spohrer said that meeting had been to discuss the proposed bed tax increase and not to discuss marketing options.
Ken Schroeder, proprietor of Apalachicola’s Bryant House Bed and Breakfast said, “The TDC’s job is to increase tourism, not to develop projects in county. The county commission should do that. Most of the sales tax should go back into promotions. We ought to be reaching out to the international market and other parts of country and even to Panama City residents who want to get away from spring breakers.
“We want a special kind of tourist who understands the pearl we have here. I don’t want it to change. This is a voice that is not being heard,” he said.
“If you were involved in the (TDC) for many years, you would see the political reality,” said Parker. “I would like to spend every penny on tourism.”
Schroeder said, “I understand the political reality. You have other voices that can go with you to fight those political issues.”
Parker replied, “We will call on you.”
The TDC board voted to table the decision on a new board member until their Nov. 6 meeting, with Hewitt opposed.
Parker said Collin’s term ends in November, “so we aren’t really behind.”
Schroeder asked, “What happens the next time somebody doesn’t show up?”
Stokowski asked that the record show that the selection of Collin’s replacement would be discussed on Nov. 6.
Parker said the TDC would issue special invitations to the meeting to Patel and Armistead. He asked that Spohrer be available to field questions from members of the TDC who missed her presentation.