Tourism director resigns

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Hamilton has accepted a position in Aurora, Ill.

By Stephen Lega

Lebanon will be looking for a new tourism executive director soon.

On Monday, Chris Hamilton told the Lebanon Tourist and Convention Commission that his final day as Lebanon's tourism director will be Aug. 19. Hamilton has accepted an offer to become the executive director of the Aurora Area Convention and Visitors Bureau in Illinois.

"I've had a great experience, and I got a great education here," Hamilton said. "But this is simply too huge. I can't pass up this opportunity."

Aurora is a suburb of Chicago, and it is the second-largest city in Illinois with a population of more than 170,000, according to the 2010 Census. The Aurora Area CVB also includes nine smaller cities - Batavia, Big Rock, Hinckley, Montgomery, North Aurora, Plano, Sandwich, Sugar Grove and Yorkville. The new Superman movie, "Man of Steel", is currently being filmed in Plano.

Dan Lawson, Lebanon tourist commission chairman, congratulated Hamilton and thanked him for his work. He added that Hamilton will be hard to replace.

"It's been a great six years," Lawson said. "You've done a tremendous job."

Commissioner David Winebrenner said he did not want to accept Hamilton's resignation.

"I will say for the years I've been involved in the commission, I've found your work to be outstanding," Winebrenner said.

The tourist commission is coming off its best financial year ever. The commission had record-high revenues during the 2010-11 fiscal year. The commission was projected to receive more than $268,000 in restaurant taxes and more than $39,000 in lodging taxes.

Tourism had an economic impact of $19 million in Marion County in 2010, according to the Kentucky Department of Travel and Tourism. In 2003, the year the tourist commission was created, tourism had an impact of $12.7 million in Marion County.

Unanimous selection

Ray Warchol is a member of the Aurora Area CVB. He has been serving as the interim director since the previous executive director, Sue Vos, retired after 20 years on the job, and he was the chairman of the search committee for the CVB.

The committee started with a list of 189 candidates for the position.

"I was just blown away by the number of applicants," Warchol said.

The search committee initially narrowed its list to 50 people. They then weeded that list down to 15 candidates who were interviewed via telephone. Based on the phone interviews, they narrowed the list to five candidates who they interviewed face-to-face.

"It was unanimous that Chris was our man," Warchol said.

Warchol said the search committee was impressed with Hamilton's energy, his efforts to continue his tourism education and his personal visit to Aurora prior to his interview. Warchol said as far as he knew, Hamilton was the only applicant who visited the area before the interview.

Hamilton was equally impressed by Aurora. He called it a beautiful area that has many activities and attractions in place, as well as plans to get even better.

"They already have a big outdoor concert series," Hamilton said. "They are building a permanent venue along the [Fox River]."

He added that Aurora has a small city feel, but it is also a short drive from Chicago.

"The biggest challenge for me will be getting used to the traffic and all the tolls," Hamilton said.

While he may be leaving Lebanon, he said it will remain important to him. Hamilton grew up here, and he has spent his professional career here. He worked for The Lebanon Enterprise for 23 years, rising to the position of editor/general manager. After serving as editor for three years, Hamilton became the tourism executive director.

He said he loves his hometown and its people, and he will miss the people he has worked with both professionally and through his involvement in civic organizations, calling them spectacular people.

"I'll still have undying loyalty to this community," he said. "I just won't be working a job here anymore."

Hamilton's devotion to his hometown was another one of the things that impressed Warchol. Based on how Hamilton spoke about Lebanon, Warchol said he might even make a detour when he visits his brother in Franklin, Tenn.

He added that the Aurora Area CVB board of directors looks to its executive director for guidance.

"As a board, we always look to the director as the person who is running it," Warchol said.

He also wished Lebanon good luck in its search for Hamilton's replacement.

"I hope you can find someone as good as we believe Chris has the potential to be," Warchol said.

For his part, Hamilton encouraged the Lebanon commission to hire someone with a tourism and travel background.

"It really does need to be in the hands of a tourism professional," he said.

Moving forward

In his resignation letter, Hamilton wrote that he appreciated the opportunities he was given with the Lebanon tourist commission.

"I look forward to the new direction of my career, although I will miss my job, my assistant, Carla [Wagner], and my community partners in Lebanon," he wrote.

Hamilton said he will miss his colleagues in the Kentucky tourism industry as well.

"They are such devoted and hard-working people, pure of heart and dedicated," he said.

The Lebanon tourist commission has had its own controversies during the past year. Hamilton said that didn't drive him away, but he acknowledged that it made him more open to considering other possibilities.

"If I was a bolt screwed into Lebanon, what happened in the past year and a half just loosened me up a bit," he said.

Hamilton also said he learned more about politics and the political nature of the tourism director's position.

"I've worked with some excellent people with good hearts and good intentions, and I have worked with people who were not that," Hamilton said. "But I believe the tourism and travel industry in Lebanon can be even greater than it is now."

Going forward, Hamilton said Lebanon will always be important to him. His family still lives here, and part of the reason he accepted the position in Aurora is because it is close enough that he can visit Lebanon occasionally.

But in the end, he said the opportunity was a "quantum leap" for his career in tourism.

"It's bittersweet," Hamilton said. "It's just such a huge advancement in my career that I'm getting this opportunity, but I have devoted most of my life to my community."

Look for more from the Aug. 8 tourist commission meeting in next week's edition.