GULFPORT – The state’s largest tourism bureau is once again caught in the crosshairs of infighting by members of the Harrison County Board of Supervisors.
Coastal Mississippi, a taxpayer-funded tourism bureau, is tasked with marketing the entire Gulf Coast as a destination for Jackson, Hancock and Harrison Counties. But for the second time since September, Harrison County supervisors are at the center of strife that could affect the tourism agency’s ability to do business.
The tourism commission – which oversees the bureau’s spending – is without a clear president as Harrison County leadership spars publicly over the position’s appointment. The disagreement has brought forth allegations of vote-stacking and doing favors for friends from one side and claims of ignoring the letter of legislation from the other.
The latest wave of drama comes as Coastal Mississippi is preparing to receive more than $6 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds allocated by the state.
“Coastal Mississippi is vital to tourism marketing and not just for the three coastal counties,” said Sen. Scott DeLano, R-Biloxi, who has long supported the three coastal counties working together.
“It’s extremely important for the entire state of Mississippi to understand that Coastal Mississippi represents a large amount of tourism spending in our state and the importance of having stability on that board and for it to work together in a collaborative manner.”
But stability hasn’t lasted more than a few months at a time.
Within recent weeks, four staffers at Coastal Mississippi’s office resigned. In September, Coastal Mississippi’s director of over three years abruptly left. In October, Mississippi Today reported Coastal Mississippi could cease to exist, as local business and casino leaders shared concerns Harrison County might pull out of the three-county agreement that allows the counties to pool resources to market the region.
Those same leaders credit then-president of the tourism commission, Brooke Shoultz, for seeing county leaders through the turmoil that took place last fall and welcoming new Coastal Mississippi executive director Judy Young.
“We unanimously support the work that Brooke has done to really frankly bring us from the brink of collapse to a much more stable place,” Jonathan Jones, the general manager of Harrah’s Gulf Coast, said during a Harrison County Supervisor meeting in Gulfport on Tuesday.
Shoultz’s term ended July 1. She said she intended to continue with her role. The tourism commissioners endorsed her reappointment unanimously – with two absentees – during a Coastal Mississippi meeting on May 26. But Harrison County’s board has the ultimate authority of who gets appointed.
Last month, Harrison County Supervisor Connie Rockco came to the board saying Shoultz didn’t want to be reappointed. Rockco motioned to appoint a new president with her pick: Thomas Sherman, a Biloxi-based alcohol distributor. The board voted 3-2 to approve Sherman .
At Tuesday’s meeting in Gulfport, Shoultz came before the supervisors asking to be reappointed. She had the public backing of seven Gulf Coast casino operators and the Gulf Coast Business Council’s executive committee – all of whom signed letters in support of her leadership.
Shoultz said past comments about not wanting to do another term as president were months old and from a time when turmoil was high and she was traveling to care for her ailing mother.
“And then we hired Judy Young, who has been an exceptional executive director and professional,” Shoultz said at the supervisor meeting held in Gulfport. “Things changed. And it became a nice place to be. We were making some true reforms and really going in the right direction, getting the board to be more of an oversight board instead of day-to-day management.”
Rockco contended that despite the tourism commission vote, Shoultz didn’t properly inform supervisors she wished to be reinstated and that the new appointment should stand.
Harrison County Supervisor Rebecca Powers said she was blindsided by Rockco’s call to appoint Sherman. She questioned the choice and said he was close friends with another tourism commission member, Kim Fritz, and her husband.
Fritz audibly gasped from her seat in the audience.
“This is about stacking the vote and that’s all it is,” Powers said during the meeting. “I’m sorry I have to speak the truth. You deserve to know the truth,” she told the crowd. “This is ludicrous.”
Rockco stood by her choice, calling Sherman a hospitality veteran who is excited and prepared to take over the role and was approved fairly.
“You can throw out the rule book if you wish,” Rocko said. “But that is the rules and regulations and it seems to not matter if someone doesn’t get their way.”
No action was taken at the board meeting this week — supervisors are awaiting clarity on their bylaw’s wording from the state’s attorney general before making any more appointment decisions. That puts both Shoultz and Sherman in limbo.
“Tourism was sort of the shining example of the way the region can come together to market itself,” said Ashley Edwards, the president and CEO of the Gulf Coast Business Council. “The difficulties that that structure continues to run into all seem to surround sort of internal politics on county boards.”
Coastal Mississippi is funded by a 2-3% tax on hotel stays across Harrison, Jackson and Hancock counties. In a budget report to Harrison County made late last year, Coastal Mississippi reported about $5.2 million in its budget from the taxes.
The bulk of that tax revenue — about 80% of Coastal Mississippi’s funding — comes from Harrison County’s casino resorts and hotels. As a result, Harrison County has the largest voting bloc within the board of commissioners that approves Coastal Mississippi’s spending.
Rich Westfall, a former casino operator, finished his eight-year term on the tourism commission last year. Toward the latter years of his tenure, he said noticed more struggles for power.
“We shouldn’t be worrying about who votes for what and who’s leading and who’s not leading and where the power is,” Westfall said. “We need to worry about how many people are in hotel rooms and how many people are visiting Mississippi. If tourism goes on the coast, so does tourism in Mississippi.”
Harrison County has a regularly scheduled supervisors meeting in Biloxi Monday. Coastal Mississippi will have its regularly scheduled meeting with the tourism commissioners at the end of the month.