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Former Coastal Mississippi Tourism Board member explains resignation, says board is ‘deeply flawed’

Jackson County’s commissioners are now adding their voices to Henderson’s call for change on the Tourism Commission.
Published: Sep. 21, 2021 at 8:55 AM CDT
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BILOXI, Miss. (WLOX) - “No longer functional and no longer represents the interests of Coastal Mississippi...” That’s how Mark Henderson described the Tourism Board he resigned from last week.

Henderson released a three-page letter Monday detailing the reasons he chose to abruptly leave the Coastal Mississippi Tourism Board. His resignation, which was effective immediately, came just after Coastal Mississippi CEO Milton Segarra also suddenly resigned. Segarra’s resignation will take effect on Oct. 15, 2021.

In the letter, Henderson called for a change to the makeup of the board so that each municipality on the Coast is represented equally. Calling the Regional Tourism Board “deeply flawed,” Henderson said he believes legislative action is needed to fix it and ensure that everyone has a seat at the table.

“I think this is best accomplished by giving every municipality on the Coast a seat on the board. There are 15 municipalities in Coastal Mississippi (3 counties, and 12 cities), and there are 15 seats on the board. I believe that every City and every County deserves a seat at the table—we are all in this together. The dynamics of the board would be further benefited if a Board member’s removal were restricted to gross malfeasance rather than any-time/any-reason as it is today.”

Of the 15 seats on the board, nine are allotted to Harrison County. The remaining six seats are filled by representatives from Jackson and Hancock counties. It’s a move that ensures that the Harrison County contingent always has the upper hand.

“Jackson and Hancock County together, historically, put in ~$1M per year into the organization. The marketing budget for the organization has been ~$2M per year. The bookend counties represent 50% of the marketing budget,” emphasized Henderson.

Henderson also hailed the accomplishments of Segarra, saying the CEO was worth his salary, which was a point of contention among board members before Segarra’s abrupt resignation.

“Milton Segarra’s efforts generated in one month additional revenues equal to more than his entire salary for the year. His leadership, his values, and his skills are absolutely expensive—and worth every penny,” stated Henderson.

Just days after Henderson’s letter was released to the public, the Jackson County Commissioners (Roxy Condrey, Carla Todd, and Jim Williams) released their own statement echoing the call for change in the Tourism Commission’s makeup.

“The Jackson County Commissioners are extremely disappointed and do not agree with the outcome of last week’s Special Call Meeting resulting in the resignation of Coastal MS Director, Milton Segarra. The actions taken last week demonstrate that the current Board structure does not foster regional participation in any way. However, we believe the situation can and will be resolved. Two things need to happen:

  1. The circumstances surrounding Mr. Segarra’s resignation must be investigated by an independent third party not located on the Coast.
  2. The current alignment of the board of Coastal MS gives too much power to the Harrison County Board of Supervisors. The state legislature needs to study the makeup of the board this fall and make a change for the betterment of Coastal MS early next session. Without said changes from the legislature, we are not able to work toward the common mission of growing regional tourism in Coastal Mississippi.

We look forward to working with the business community, tourism leaders across the coast and most importantly the legislature to continue to advance regional tourism on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.”

Read Henderson’s full statement below:

“I believe in Mississippi. I was born in the Delta as my father completed a degree in Chemistry while working at Baxter Chemical. I was raised in the piney woods near Waynesboro, a town laid in ruins at the alter of free-trade. I was, by the grace of God, selected to attend the Mississippi School for Math and Science in Columbus. I attended Mississippi State University, where I met the love of my life. We settled in Coastal Mississippi, and started our business and family. My wife and I are committed to Coastal Mississippi, and have been deeply engaged in that endeavor. We have served on a variety of Boards at local, regional, state, and national levels—donating our time and efforts to do everything we can to make Coastal Mississippi a better place and bring positive awareness to our community.

It was with a heavy heart, I recently resigned from the Regional Tourism Board, effective mere minutes before CEO Milton Segarra tendered his resignation. Notably, the first time I have ever resigned from a board. I did so because I could no longer support the organization, and had, based on my own observations, determined that the board was no longer functional, that it no longer represented the interests of Coastal Mississippi, and had effectively destroyed any chance for collaboration among its commissioners. In the last year, a board that had been cohesive, educated on the topics, and aligned on a common mission of growing tourism in Coastal Mississippi, had devolved into partisan pit, whereby policy and actions were being decided by a small group, and then forced on the institution by a Harrison County Contingent that voted consistently in a nine-member block, at times against the advice of its own attorney.

I believe, and continue to believe, in the regional approach that the Coastal Mississippi Regional Tourism represents. For many reasons, a regional approach is critical to our long-term success as a tourist destination. Critically, our competition approaches Tourism regionally—it is a winning strategy. It has allowed Coastal Mississippi the resources to invest in quality branding, quality staff, and greatly increase dollars spent on direct marketing. When Milton Segarra became CEO of the organization, he brought a data driven methodology. He brought incredible instincts on how and when to pivot. Using market research, he and his team identified consumers that needed our product and identified how to reach them so that they would select our destination. He has also built and motivated a team of people with the experience and skills required to navigate our unique environment.

He saw us through the Bonnet Carre Spillway opening and the resulting damage to our beaches. His team developed consistent messaging so that all our elected officials could respond appropriately when offered a chance to tell our story in a way that acknowledged our challenges but did not become messaging that would turn people away in the future. He saw us through the Covid-19 pandemic. His leadership helped organize the DMO’s across the state to go to the legislature, speak with one voice, and get ~$3.5M dollars of CARES act money to help Coastal Mississippi weather the storm. Make no mistake, there was no set-aside of the CARES Act money for Tourism—without his leadership I do not believe that we would have ended up with that much money.

The Harrison County BOS recently challenged Milton on his salary. It is important to note that Milton’s contract and pay are based on performance, his contract was negotiated by the Regional Tourism Board, and it was voted on and approved by that Board—a board that Harrison County has both majority and quorum. His contract could not have been approved without the votes of Harrison County representatives. Questions were asked about how it is possible to justify his salary in comparison to Sherriff’s deputies, that make “35,000 or even $25,000” per year. It is right to be appalled at the difference, but not for the reasons supposed in the recent BOS meeting. I find it absolutely appalling that we ask men and women to put on body armor, strap on a gun, and pay them nearly minimum wage to put their lives at risk in service to others. The travesty is not in how much Milton makes, but in how little we are willing to pay those that are on the front line.

The only public words that I have heard from Harrison County BOS with respect to being unhappy with Milton’s “performance” has been with respect to his pay. Yet, they have never come before the Regional Tourism Board, nor has any member of the Regional Tourism Board suggested, or made a motion to change or re-negotiate his contract or salary. Milton was paid very well. Those compensation levels come with huge expectations. For perspective on just how great a job Milton was doing, in July of 2021 room tax revenues to the Regional Tourism Board were $47,524 (Hancock), $695,805 (Harrison), and $107,016 (Jackson), a total monthly revenue of $850,345. Past July totals were $527,773 (FY2017), $569,012 (FY2018), $456,534 (FY2019—Bonnet Carre / Freshwater Intrusion), $440,562 (FY2020--COVID), and $850,345 (FY2021—Still COVID). Just to put this in perspective, if you compare the historical highest monthly July total to July 2021, the organization realized $281,333 more dollars from room tax revenues. There are no one-time monies or grants included in these numbers. Milton Segarra’s efforts generated in one month additional revenues equal to more than his entire salary for the year. His leadership, his values, and his skills are absolutely expensive—and worth every penny.

I resigned because the Regional Tourism Board is, in my opinion, deeply flawed and at this point unsalvageable, due to two fundamental issues: 1) the representation on the board does not accurately reflect the spatial and cultural diversity of our Coastal Counties, and 2) members of the Regional Tourism Board are not as independent as they should be because any board member can be recalled by their respective County Board at any time for any reason—I am unaware of any other Board in the State of Mississippi that allows a Board Member to be removed at any time for any reason.

To fix Regional Tourism requires a legislative fix. I believe that the best way to make the Regional Tourism Board successful is for the make up of the board to be changed to more accurately reflect the regional approach: I think this is best accomplished by giving every municipality on the Coast a seat on the board. There are 15 municipalities in Coastal Mississippi (3 counties, and 12 cities), and there are 15 seats on the board. I believe that every City and every County deserves a seat at the table—we are all in this together. The dynamics of the board would be further benefited if a Board member’s removal were restricted to gross malfeasance rather than any-time/any-reason as it is today.

I did not resign because I did not get my way. I did not resign because my ego was bruised from my ouster as President. I did not resign because I no longer believe in Regional Tourism. I resigned because I no longer feel that my values are aligned with the current Board. I resigned because the Harrison County Regional Tourism Commissioners have demonstrated a willingness to do whatever they want to—because they can, not because it is good for Coastal Mississippi. I resigned because I would never be able to look another candidate for the position of CEO, in the eye, and tell them they could build a career here. I resigned because a great travesty has been maligned on a true gentleman, who worked hard, and delivered amazing results. I resigned because I believe that Coastal Mississippi is better than this.

Although I resigned, I have not quit. I will continue to work to support regional tourism. We need changes to the structure so that all are represented—and that the misplaced agendas of a few can’t derail an entire industry. We need to acknowledge that regional tourism works, that we are stronger together. Jackson and Hancock County together, historically, put in ~$1M per year into the organization. The marketing budget for the organization has been ~$2M per year. The bookend counties represent 50% of the marketing budget. The organization that was created in the past, got us an experiment—an experiment that worked. Our numbers through this pandemic are nothing short of amazing. Amazing compared to our past performance, and amazing compared to the performance of our peers (the real measure).

There are many possible solutions, but it will take all of us coming together to make it happen. We need an organization founded on representing the 12 cities and the 3 counties across Coastal Mississippi. We need an organization cemented in a goals-oriented approach that recognizes that we are stronger together than we are apart. We need to support regional tourism. We can do this. I believe in Mississippi.”

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