Gallery: Doak says goodbye at CVB luncheon as officials sing his praisesLeaders defend giving county taxes to tourism agency
The audience laughed Wednesday at the 76th annual luncheon of the Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau as Bob Doak, the CVB's president and CEO, made a humorous nod to controversy this year over accusations of overspending by the tourist bureau that's primarily funded by taxes levied on motel and hotel guests.
In a spoof video that's a hallmark of CVB luncheons, a ghost visits Doak because he's looking for a new space after the Cheeburger Cheeburger building's collapse in March temporarily left Chattanooga Ghost Tours homeless. The ghost tells Doak, "I'd be happy to discuss this further over lunch at Hennen's."
"Hennen's. Um ... I'm trying to cut down on my lunches at Hennen's," Doak says in the video, a reference to an unofficial internal document from the county auditing department that says the CVB picked up the tab for $43,400 worth of meals at Hennen's, St. John's and other high-end Chattanooga restaurants during the 2014 fiscal year.
Wednesday's luncheon was Doak's swan song, since he retires in February after 15 years at the helm of the CVB.
A number of elected officials and hospitality industry leaders sang Doak's praises in person and during nonspoof video segments at the luncheon.
They defended the county's decision to turn over 100 percent of its hotel and motel bed tax revenue, estimated around $8.2 million this year, to the CVB on the grounds that it's an investment that returns $1.06 billion in tourism spending, attracts 3.5 million visitors, creates 8,700 jobs and generates $24 million in local sales tax — including $12 million to the public schools.
"I would take that return [on investment] any day of the week," said Keith Sanford, the president and CEO of the Tennessee Aquarium and the treasurer of the CVB board of directors.
County Commissioner Tim Boyd has argued the CVB doesn't need 100 percent of the bed tax, and suggested at least $2 million of that should be diverted to a $10 million athletic complex at the Howard School. Boyd helped convince the county commission this summer to increase financial oversight of the CVB and other nonprofits that get more than 25 percent of their operating budgets from the county, but commissioners a month later reversed themselves.
Meanwhile, the Tennessee Comptroller's Office audited the CVB this summer and has yet to release its report.
Gov. Bill Haslam took to the podium and shared this year's numbers for the economic impact of tourism in Tennessee — after Haslam gave a plaque to Chattanooga Bakery President Sam Campbell commemorating the 100th anniversary of the MoonPie. Haslam officially declared Wednesday as "MoonPie Day" in Tennessee in recognition of the marshmallow treat.
Hamilton County's $1.06 billion in tourism impact was just ahead of Knox County's $1.056 billion, a figure that Haslam, a former two-term mayor of Knoxville, shared with some chagrin.
"There's always a real close battle between Knox and Hamilton — but Hamilton won this year," he said.
"Good results don't just happen. People have to work to make them happen," Haslam said. "Bob has been relentless in his advocacy."
Praise for the CVB also came from U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn, who presented a congressional certificate of special recognition in person, and via video appearances from hoteliers Mitch Patel and Ken Defoor, Rock City Gardens President Susan Harris, former Soddy-Daisy county commissioner Fred Skillern and former county Mayor Claude Ramsey.
"One of the lessons that [my daddy] taught me is, if it's working pretty well, don't mess it up," Ramsey said.
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, a former Chattanooga mayor, praised Doak via video.
"You are a good friend. You have been a remarkable leader," Corker said.
Developer and former Chattanooga mayor Jon Kinsey, who appeared live and in video, said he's been friends with Doak for almost 30 years, including 10 years when Doak worked for Kinsey before Doak joined the CVB.
"How did we get to that first Ironman?" Kinsey asked, referring to the triathlon that now makes multiple appearances in Chattanooga and is said to generate tens of millions in tourist spending. "I assure you, it was because of the efforts of Bob Doak."
County Mayor Jim Coppinger praised the county commission for giving all of the county's bed tax revenue to the tourism agency.
"It's been a privilege and an honor to be able to work with Bob Doak," Coppinger said, who said he tried unsuccessfully to get Doak not to retire yet.
At the luncheon's close, Doak said, "I certainly wasn't expecting all of that."
He expressed gratitude to God, including for blessing "this community with natural beauty."
"My hope is for the industry to never stop growing," Doak said.
Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at email@example.com or www.facebook.com/MeetsForBusiness or on Twitter @meetforbusiness or 423-757-6651.