Keys tourism council narrows field for new agency director

Within two weeks, the Monroe County Tourist Development Council could tap its first new marketing director in more than two decades.

The full TDC board is scheduled to meet Aug. 22 in Marathon to interview top candidates to follow Harold Wheeler, who for 21 years has headed the agency staff as marketing director. Wheeler announced four months ago that he plans to step down Sept. 26.

“Tourism is the lifeblood of this community so this is an important decision,” TDC Chairwoman Rita Irwin said Tuesday. “And it’s one we don’t do that often.”

In a June 22 meeting to outline criteria for the TDC’s next top staffer, agency board members picked a search committee to review resumes from professionals interested in the job expected to pay from $150,000 to $170,000 annually. Wheeler earns $170,000 under his most recent contract.

“We got nine who applied and three did not fit the criteria,” said Sylvia Murphy, the Monroe County commissioner who serves on the TDC board. “One of the six remaining has since accepted another job.”

“Harold has put his imprint on [the TDC] so strongly over the years that it’s going to have to be a special person to make this fit right,” Murphy said.

The fiscal year 2018 overall budget for the county’s array of tourism promotion efforts is estimated at $58.6 million.

The initial TDC hiring plan was to invite the finalists to meet with the search committee on Aug. 21, with the committee’s top two choices going before the full TDC board a day later. That could change since search-committee members individually ranked resumes from the same three people among their top options.

Wheeler said he has proposed inviting the top three prospects to be interviewed by the full TDC board on Aug. 22, but that decision is pending.

“All three of the top candidates currently are working in Florida,” Wheeler said.

Monroe County Commission members will make the final decision as overseers of the TDC budget.

“It’s super important to me [for the candidates] to have experience in the state of Florida and familiarity with the state TDC statutes,” Irwin said. “They really need an understanding of what’s going on politically in Florida, and in the industry.

“Bringing in someone from out of state definitely is not in our best interest, I don’t think,” she said. “Someone who knows the Keys would be of great interest. We’ve seen other agencies hire people who then realize that island life is not for them.”

“I want someone who is people person,” Murphy said. “Someone who understands we’re not looking for more visitors but for quality visitors who want to do more than drink and carouse. We do have a traffic problem here.”

Kevin Wadlow: 305-440-3206