Harrison County

Coast tourism shakeup continues as director’s contract is not renewed

After three years as executive director of Visit Mississippi Gulf Coast, Renee Areng on Thursday was at the table as 11 of the 15 directors seated around her voted not to renew her contract.

That three-year contract was set to expire July 31. Instead the board extended it until Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year and the required four months’ notice needed not to renew the contract.

The next step, said board president Clay Wagner, is an executive committee meeting to determine how to proceed with the search for a new director. He serves on that committee along with Richard Westfall, Duncan McKenzie, Carla Todd and Bill Holmes.

In 2014, the directors said they had to get it right when selecting the person who would lead the newly formed agency to promote all three counties in South Mississippi. A seven-month national search led them to Areng, who was vice president of Visit Baton Rouge and had experience as a convention marketing manager in Lafayette. They hired her at a salary of $130,000.

The vote to end her contract came after an hour-long executive session, and Wagner declined to reveal what was discussed. He said the contract extension comes with some additional terms, but said the attorney would have to describe what those terms will be.

The four board members who voted against not renewing the contract were Richard Chenoweth, Nikki Moon, Westfall and Wagner.

In a shakeup last month, Harrison County supervisors replaced two members on the board. The new members, Dan Wittmann and Mary Cracciolo Spain, were among the 11 who voted not to renew Areng’s contract.

If the board doesn’t have a new candidate for director when Arengs contract ends, it’s possible the new board president could serve as acting director, as was done when Beverly Martin filled that position after Beth Carriere resigned and before Areng was hired. At Thursday’s meeting, the board elected Holmes as president starting July 1, McKenzie as vice president, Danny Hansen as secretary and Chenoweth as treasurer.

Immediately after the meeting, Areng called her staff to the board room and informed them of the vote, but declined comment to the media.

However, while the board was in executive session, she reflected on her three years as Coast tourism director: “We established a great foundation.”

She took over amid financial controversy, she said, when no audit could be found for the previous Harrison County Tourism Commission. Now all three counties have dedicated funding to promote tourism.

In her executive report at the beginning of Thursday’s meeting, Areng said casino revenue is up 1 percent this year. Hotel occupancy tax collections, which provide much of the funding for the operation of Visit MGC, fell 19 percent in January and 6 percent in February but rallied and were up 8 percent in March. In the week since the new My Gulf Coast app launched, she said, it’s been downloaded an “amazing” 400 times to help to direct people to area restaurants and attractions.

“There’s so much potential here,” Areng said three years ago when she was hired. Now a new director will have to be found and charged with tapping that potential and advancing tourism across South Mississippi.