Ohio Seeks New Tourism Director Following Performance Concerns

By ANDREW WELSH-HUGGINS, AP Statehouse Correspondent

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - The state's travel and tourism director is looking for a new job following concerns about the department's performance raised by Gov. Bob Taft and others in his administration.

Jim Epperson, 37, has resigned to pursue other interests, Gail Crawley, a Department of Development spokeswoman, said Wednesday.

Taft said Wednesday that after he appointed Bruce Johnson to lead the Development Department last year, he told Johnson that travel and tourism was "an area that needed to be stepped up. It needed to do a more vigorous job of promoting travel and tourism in Ohio."

Taft declined to comment on Epperson's departure. Messages seeking comment were left for Epperson and Johnson.

Mary Anne Sharkey, Taft's communications director, said she also expressed her concerns about travel and tourism to Johnson. She said she was concerned about the department's focus and its effectiveness. In particular, Sharkey said travel writers had expressed frustration that the department wasn't giving them what they needed.

In 1999, Ohio's travel and tourism budget of $6.4 million was ranked 35th in the nation, according to the Ohio Hotel and Lodging Association. It ranked behind Kentucky ($7.2 million), West Virginia ($13 million), Michigan ($15.5 million) and Pennsylvania ($34.4 million).

The state's market share of regional tourism dollars dropped 8.7 percent between 1994 and 1999, according to the OHLA statistics.

The state is spending $6.3 million on travel and tourism this year and the same amount next year.

"The Department of Development needs to recognize that travel and tourism is in fact a real industry in the state and as such deserves the kind of attention that other industries have gotten in the past," said Rep. Chris Redfern, a Port Clinton Democrat whose Lake Erie district depends heavily on tourism dollars. "There's little if any advocacy coming from within the administration for increasing the size of the budget."

In November, Taft called on Ohioans to travel and shop around the state to show support following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He also said Johnson was creating a plan to boost tourism and travel, but he did not allocate any additional money for the department.

Last spring, the state replaced its 17-year-old slogan, "Ohio The Heart Of It All!", with "Ohio So Much To Discover!"

The travel and tourism bureau spent $2.6 million to hire Akron-based STP Communications to develop and design the slogan, logo and an accompanying advertising campaign that will include television commercials, a seasonal travel magazine called Discover Ohio and an updated Internet site.

It would be difficult for anyone to do an effective job as travel and tourism director given the office's limited budget, Mark McQuaid, executive director of the Ohio Travel Association, said Wednesday.

Because the state isn't advertising Ohio's potential as a vacation spot, people aren't coming to visit, McQuaid said.

"If it's not on the radar screen they're not going to do it," he said. "Without that image and the advertising dollars to create that image, Ohio's going to continue to lose visitors."

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)