Friday, October 11, 2013

Commerce director defends changes

Reorganization involved apparent demotion of tourism

Express Staff Writer

     A recent reorganization of the Idaho Department of Commerce will not result in any less effort directed toward helping the state’s tourism industry, and should enhance it, department Director Jeff Sayer said Thursday.

     “Tourism is one of the most important industries in the state,” Sayer said during an interview at Shorty’s Diner in Hailey. “It’s a backbone of Idaho’s economy. We have entire regions of the state that depend on it. We have not lost sight of that.”

     According to the U.S. Travel Association, Idaho’s $3.4 billion tourism industry employs more than 26,000 Idahoans and generates nearly $500 million in local, state and federal tax revenues.

     The reorganization, undertaken last week, reduced the number of divisions within the department from seven to three and eliminated the positions of Tourism Division Administrator Karen Ballard and International Division Administrator Damien Bard.

     The 45-person department now consists of a Business Creation Division, a Business Expansion Division and an Administrative Division. The six-member tourism-promotion team is part of the Business Creation Division.

     Sayer’s comments indicated that the term “business creation” means to attract more customers and revenue while “business expansion” means to grow production facilities and community infrastructure.

     Sayer said the reorganization was prompted by a directive from Gov. Butch Otter for the department to prepare itself for the next decade.

     “He didn’t tell me how to do it. He just challenged us to find a better way and let us figure it out,” Sayer said. “I appreciated the challenge because it’s motivated us to dig deeper and find some new and creative ways to do what we do.”

     Sayer said the department’s streamlining is intended to facilitate communication between himself and division heads, to spend money more efficiently and to prompt new ideas for how the department can do its job better.

      “The savings we create here will remain in tourism and will be redirected into activities we feel will create even more revenue for the tourism industry,” he said.

     The department’s tourism promotion activities are funded entirely by a 2 percent state tax on hotel and campground sales receipts. State law requires that money, less administrative costs, to be spent half on statewide tourism promotion and half on grants to local tourism organizations. The grants are administered by the department and the Idaho Travel Council, whose eight regional members are appointed by the governor.

     Last year, the grant program awarded $3.2 million statewide, including $215,600 to the Sun Valley Marketing Alliance, $26,045 to the Hailey Chamber of Commerce and $35,200 to the Stanley-Sawtooth Chamber of Commerce.

     Sayer said the department’s reorganization will not affect the grant program.

     “There’s not a lot of flexibility in how we spend that money,” he said. “We don’t have the liberty to direct it to other things [than tourism].”

     He said that with the reorganization, he expects the department to have more money to spend on promoting events in the Wood River Valley. He mentioned mountain bike races and the Sun Valley Film Festival as two possibilities.

     Sayer said he appreciated Ballard’s six years of “great service” as administrator of the former Tourism Division. He said he hoped she would apply for the tourism team manager position, but will understand if she is not interested in the lower-paying job. Ballard posted on her Facebook page that she will not apply for the position, but said she might apply for the position of administrator of the Business Creation Division.

     Sayer said he spent more than 20 years as CEO of several companies, beginning in Silicon Valley in California, then in the Salt Lake City area, before moving to Idaho and becoming director of the Department of Commerce two years ago. He said he was involved in several reorganizations of unprofitable businesses.

     “I’ve seen the benefits that can come from constantly adapting and improving an organization,” he said. “We think this organizational structure prepares us for the next decade.”

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