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The wrong approach to a worthwhile idea

February 2, 2012

On January 26, in one of its first actions, the new Sullivan County Legislature decided to issue requests for proposal (RFPs) for the county’s tourism promotion contract, which for some years has gone, without competition, to the Sullivan County Visitors Association (SCVA).

Considered in isolation, this might not be a bad idea. The county is financially strapped and in desperate need of innovative ideas to get the economy, of which tourism is a huge part, moving. To require entities to compete for county tourism promotion dollars, at least in theory, could be a way to spur creative and cost-effective thinking—by the SCVA as well as any others who submit proposals. There’s no reason the SCVA couldn’t be re-awarded the contract if it came up with the proposal that looks like it will be the most effective in getting bang for the county’s bucks.

But the context and timing of the decision raise some serious questions. To begin with, there is a simple logistical issue. The work of creating some of the SCVA literature and programs, such as the Travel Guide and driving tours, is already in progress. To go back to square one and start an RFP process at this time could delay things enough to throw a spanner into the county’s tourism promotion for the summer of 2012, no matter who gets the contract. (Indeed, in general, due to the long-term nature of the planning process, even if an RFP process were adopted it might not prove smart to send them out every year.)

Second, the SCVA isn’t a company with a few employees. It’s a 300-member organization of county businesses. What would happen to the members if the contract is reassigned? Would they be left out in the cold? Expected to join up with the new contract holders? And how would they feel about a change at the helm? This is not exactly a small detail, and would need to be worked out if the businesses with the largest vested interest in tourism, who actually generate the income awarded through the collection of the room tax, are not to be, in effect, disenfranchised.

In fact, the iffy status of the SCVA members, none of whom were invited to give their input on this issue, brings us to the next point: the process of crafting of this deal apparently flew in the face of the new legislature’s purported concerns with ethics and transparency. Not only did it come as a surprise to the SCVA members but, as detailed in the story on page 3, the new Democratic legislators apparently constructed this deal in caucus, out of view of the public and without input from the two Republicans legislators.