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County tourism agency undergoes leadership change

Mark Parker

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Steve Hayes has resigned as president and CEO of the St. Petersburg of Visit St. Pete-Clearwater. A special assistant to the Pinellas County administrator will assume his responsibilities. Photo: Visit St. Pete/Clearwater.

Steve Hayes has stepped down as the president and CEO of Visit St. Pete-Clearwater (VSPC) after guiding the agency through the pandemic and setting new benchmarks.

While a Pinellas County news release Tuesday evening publicly announced his “departure,” the Catalyst obtained an email from Administrator Barry Burton to county commissioners stating that Hayes had resigned. Brian Lowack, special assistant to the county administrator, will serve as the interim president and CEO.

“We appreciate Steve’s commitment to our destination,” said Commissioner Charlie Justice. “He guided the organization during the pandemic and our response in the time frame afterward. We wish him all the good days ahead.”

Burton noted that both Lowack and Kevin Knutson, assistant county administrator, would participate in upcoming Tourism Development Council (TDC) meetings. The organizations’ operations are intrinsically intertwined, and Hayes was a TDC board member throughout his three-and-a-half-year tenure.

The leadership change comes during a critical time for the TDC. The county collected nearly $66 million in bed taxes last year, and officials dedicate 60% to the advertising and marketing – overseen by VSPC – and 40% to capital projects recommended by TDC members.

The tourism council recently approved giving the Dali Museum’s leadership $34 million in bed tax funding for an expansion that will double the institution’s size. The Tampa Bay Rays will request more for a new stadium this year.

Clearwater Mayor Brian Aungst Sr. will soon ask TDC colleagues to support an extensive Philadelphia Phillies spring training facility redevelopment. While commissioners have the final say, several other significant projects will come before the council in 2023.

Commission and TDC Chair Janet Long told the council at its May meeting that Pinellas officials would evaluate how they distribute bed taxes – a 6% surcharge on lodging stays – as they explore what it would cost to repair severely eroded beaches without federal assistance.

Brian Lowack was part of a group of county officials that recently traveled to the White House to seek beach renourishment solutions. Photo: Pinellas County Government.

Lowack is also the county’s intergovernmental liaison. In March, he joined a group of local officials at the White House as they sought solutions for their stalemate with the Army Corps of Engineers over beach renourishment policies.

“Brian Lowack is a talented guy, and he’ll have a lot of support from everyone,” Justice said. “Our contracts with trusted vendors are set, and the marketing efforts will continue on schedule.”

Hayes spent 25 years with Visit Tampa Bay before becoming the president of Visit Pensacola in 2013. He assumed leadership of VSPC in December 2019 and could not immediately be reached for comment.

“We are grateful to Steve for his years of service to Pinellas County and wish him success in his future endeavors,” Burton said in a prepared statement. “We are confident in the ability of our team members to continue to deliver exceptional results for our industry partners and drive growth in visitation during the leadership transition.”

Meet the interim CEO

Lowack, 35, is a Pinellas native. He relayed his surprise to learn of Hayes’ departure and expressed eagerness to assume the new role.

“Obviously, the work doesn’t stop,” Lowack said Tuesday night. “I’m really confident in my ability to step in and lead an incredible team of employees over at Visit St. Pete-Clearwater.”

Brian Lowack, special assistant to the county administrator.

Lowack has followed the TDC and VSPC throughout his 11 years with county government and admires their efforts. While he is not an expert on the work, he trusts that an “incredible” staff will quickly bring him up to speed.

He also hopes to provide them with the resources needed “to perform to the best of their abilities.” Lowack said he is unaware of the reason for Hayes’ resignation.

He is now focusing on utilizing his administrative background to increase synergy between the tourism agencies and county government officials.

“That’s my goal,” Lowack said. “Look, the TDC – they’ve got some of the most well-respected minds on that board. Ultimately, it’s my job to ensure that the TDC and the Board of County Commissioners have the most collaboration possible to advance our goals.

“We can work together to make sure that the priorities align and we get the best product possible – and I’m confident we will.”

He reiterated his commitment to ensuring the tourism agencies, commissioners, industry partners, municipal leadership and residents work together. Lowack also wants to ensure morale remains high and stakeholders view the changes as an opportunity.

Burton said administrators would soon begin a search for Hayes’ permanent replacement. However, Lowack said he was unsure of any details regarding the process and that it is too soon to contemplate applying for the permanent position.

He wants the public to know that the VSPC team realizes tourism’s value to the county. Lowack noted that the industry is the area’s primary economic driver, and the organization’s staff understands that their work impacts the lives of every resident.

“Growing up here, I feel like I’ve always been a walking billboard for Pinellas County,” he added. “So, I’m excited to get to work and really tell people all over the world why Pinellas County is the best place in the world. And I can’t wait to meet and learn about all our partners and dedicated employees over at Visit St. Pete-Clearwater.”

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