Going for ‘GOLD’
By Keith Lawrence

The Owensboro-Daviess County Convention & Visitors Bureau will celebrate its 45th anniversary this fall with a new president and an expanded effort to help fill local hotel rooms.

Mark Calitri, former president and chief executive officer of the Cincinnati East Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Clermont (Ohio) Sports Development Corp., began his duties as president of the local CVB on June 1.

Ruth Ann Dearness, the CVB’s board chairwoman, said the decision to hire Calitri was easy.

“We interviewed three people,” she said. “Mark has the track record we need. He came with incredible recommendations. He has Kentucky roots, and he lived in Northern Kentucky. He understands the culture. He impressed us with the homework he had done on Owensboro. He came here and studied the community before his interview.”

Dearness said Calitri fits the job description so well that, “Had we known Mark first, it would look like we built the job description around him.”

Candance Brake, president of the Greater Owensboro Chamber of Commerce, served on the CVB’s search committee.

“Mark’s success at his last position was remarkable,” she said. “That track record along with his fresh perspective on how we can be better are so impressive and will lay the groundwork for our success for years to come.”

She said the chamber, CVB and Greater Owensboro Economic Development Corp. work together to promote the community.

Calitri, the first person from outside the region to head the CVB, was born in Barbourville and grew up in Richmond.

Back then, he wanted to be “a musician with facepaint — like Kiss” — or a professional wrestler when he grew up.

But Calitri was introduced to the hospitality industry — and found a different career — when he landed a job working the front desk at a Days Inn when he was in college.

Fifteen years ago, he got a job in hotel sales and moved into hotel management.

Four years ago, a consultant he had worked with in the past recommended Calitri for the CVB presidency in Clermont County, Ohio.

When the Owensboro job came open, Calitri came to check the city out.

His wife’s family lives in Madisonville, and the move made sense.

‘Saw a gold mine’

“The first time I came to Owensboro when I was considering applying, I literally saw a gold mine,” Calitri said. “It was a sunny day. People were eating on the sidewalks in front of restaurants that were packed. I saw a beautiful riverfront that nobody else has. You have an ice rink, a Sportscenter, so much to offer.”

But he said, “Owensboro has a nickname of being Kentucky’s best-kept secret. That’s not a good thing. And we have to change it.”

Dearness said, “We have been a a marketing organization since the inception. But what we do has changed to helping drive sales and bringing people to town to fill hotels and restaurants. We need to become a larger presence in the community. We have a great staff, but we need him to assess our organization and make it more proactive. We need to promote everything about our community.”

Calitri said, “We need to knock on doors to drum up business. We have to capitalize on all of our opportunities. We have one of the most beautiful convention centers I’ve ever seen, and I’ve traveled a lot.”

The $15.4 million International Bluegrass Music Center is scheduled to open next spring.

“We’re researching what other cities have done when they open a museum,” Calitri said. “Bluegrass is important, but Owensboro is a hot music town with a lot of other music. Friday After 5. Live on the Banks. We need to promote it all.”

In 2014, ConventionSouth magazine named the Owensboro riverfront the third “hippest music venue” in the South.

Calitri said the CVB will announce a strategic plan this summer.

“Festivals are great,” he said. “But we have to balance local events with filling hotels and the convention center and more corporate events. We can’t cram much more into May, June and July. But we need to find more events for the other months.”

Calitri said, “We’re planning a sales blitz in July. We’ll be contacting all the state associations and major companies that have annual meetings in Kentucky. That will take the whole month. Owensboro has good museums, a good airport, and sports are huge here. We need to promote that.”

He’s is the seventh person to head the agency and the first with no ties to the community.

All the previous executive directors, starting with Donald Butler in 1972, were from Owensboro.

Butler was followed by Bonnie Voyles, Mary Donna Martin, Burley Phelan, Karen Miller Porter and Shannon Wetzel Boutin.

The title for the position had been executive director in the past.

Dearness said the board decided to elevate the qualifications for the post as well as the title.

The agency wanted someone with a bachelor’s degree in hotel administration or business management and seven to 10 years of experience in hospitality sales.

The post had been vacant since Oct. 19, when Boutin resigned to become a product manager at Specialty Foods Group.

Tourism booming

The local tourism industry has boomed since the redevelopment of the Owensboro riverfront, which included building the Owensboro Convention Center and two hotels next to it.

In August 2013, when Boutin arrived, the CVB took in $47,020 from its 3 percent tax on hotel room rentals.

Last August, it collected $81,612.

In May, the Kentucky Tourism, Arts & Heritage Cabinet said tourist spending in Daviess County jumped $21.7 million last year to $313.8 million.

That’s an increase of 7.43 percent — a greater jump than 2014 and 2015 combined.

That’s light years away from July 1, 1972 , when Daviess Fiscal Court created what was then the Owensboro-Daviess County Tourist Commission.

A lot of people back then wondered why the city need a tourist commission.

The only tourist attraction Owensboro had, they said, was “the world’s largest sassafras tree” on Frederica Street.

There were only 12 motels in town then with a total of 613 rooms.

And most of those were small mom-and-pops built back in the 1950s.

Gabe’s Tower Inn, the 120-room 13-story silo-shaped hotel built in 1963, was considered the place to stay.

The Rudd Hotel, built in the 1890s, and the Owensboro Downtown Motor Inn, built in the 1920s, had once been the city’s major hotels.

Both were on their last legs by then.

By January 1975, the tourist commission had reached the conclusion that the city had to have a large convention center-motel complex if it was going to compete for major conventions.

“I think this just points up how badly Owensboro needs a convention center,” Butler said, as he reported on the 20 conventions from 1974.

But the idea didn’t come without controversy.

A month later, local motel owners began to question the need for a large hotel.

They proposed building a convention center without an adjoining hotel.

“We just don’t need another motel,” Jane Elder, manager of the Colonel House Motel, told the agency.

But just a few weeks later, entrepreneur Bob Green bought the old county garage property downtown and announced plans for what became the Executive Inn.

And Owensboro began to change.

In 1977, Green opened the Executive Inn Rivermont, the largest hotel in western Kentucky with 650-plus rooms.

And tourism soared as state associations began bringing their conventions to Owensboro.

There was a spectacular crash for local tourism in 2008, when the famed hotel closed its doors.

But today, with two new downtown hotels — and a third expected — and a new riverfront convention center, the conventions — and tourists — are back.

During its first full year — 1972-73 — what’s now the CVB had a budget of only $38,800 from a 3 percent tax on each motel room rental.

Today, the proposed budget for 2017-18 is $823,455.

The CVB bounced around the city in rented offices — on East 18th Street, Backsquare Drive and St. Elizabeth Street — for 25 years before it finally got a permanent home in 1997.

That year, it bought two buildings at 215 E. Second St., part of the RiverPark Center complex, from the city.

The visitor information center, which had had a brief run in a 21-foot motor home in 1976, finally opened full time in downtown in 1998.

And the following year, the tourist commission added a regional hall of fame to the center.

Keith Lawrence, 270-691-7301, klawrence@messenger-inquirer.com

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