City's tourism director resigns

Doggett cites health, family reasons for leaving position


Leslie R. Doggett, who took the helm of Baltimore's embattled convention and visitors agency not quite three years ago, resigned yesterday, just weeks before the launch of a major tourism campaign and as a city-financed convention center hotel rises downtown hungry for bookings.

Doggett pointed to "health and family reasons" for her departure. She has not been to work since Feb. 10, officials said.

Though Doggett had apparently been sick for the better part of this year - and rumors of her absence have swirled around town for weeks - her decision to leave took officials by surprise, with Mayor Martin O'Malley still talking late yesterday morning as if she were staying.

"There's nobody that wanted Leslie gone - nobody. But if you're sick, you're sick," Ed Hale, the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association's board chairman, said yesterday after issuing a statement on her departure. "If she was OK, there would be no need for any kind of change at all."

In 2003, the city announced with great fanfare that Doggett would become BACVA's president and CEO. She was taking the helm of an agency in distress with a dubious record of filling the city's convention center and the stigma of its last president being forced out in a flurry of mismanagement accusations and inflated hotel bookings charges.

"She came in after a very difficult and controversial time, inheriting a lot of mistrust," City Councilman Kieffer J. Mitchell Jr. said. "The agency was basically a mess. I think she did a decent job considering what she was coming into."

Doggett's three-year contract would have expired in June, but BACVA's board voted in December to extend it for another three years with a minimal raise, said Clarence T. Bishop, O'Malley's chief of staff, who proceeded Hale as BACVA board chairman.

Doggett made $180,000 a year, though according to Hale, she has not been paid since Feb. 10.

The city will also provide Doggett with an exit package, the financial terms of which Hale declined to specify. "I promised [Doggett] I would not say anything," he said.

A number of regional business and tourism officials yesterday praised Doggett's efforts to right her agency's course, hire talented salespeople and to creatively market Baltimore.

"The team she put together has reinvigorated BACVA," said Dennis Castleman, the state's chief marketing officer and assistant secretary for tourism, film and the arts. "Three years ago, BACVA was in disarray."

According to BACVA spokeswoman Nancy Hinds, the agency's sales production numbers for fiscal year 2006 are up for the first six months, 92 percent over the same time in 2005. And 2005 saw 17 percent more bookings than 2004, she said.

But last year, as the city embarked on a plan to finance a $305 million convention center hotel, some doubted BACVA's ability to fill the 752 rooms scheduled to open in 2008, noting that the city's convention center had yet to achieve its lofty projections from the time of its last expansion.

City Councilman James B. Kraft, a critic of the hotel project, said Doggett's inability to answer questions about her strategy during the hotel hearings disturbed him.

"She was `planning' to do this and `planning' to do that - and she had already been here 18 months," Kraft said. "When that hotel is built, we can't be saying, `Oh, we just lost our director.' That's not going to pay the bill. Those rooms need to be rented, and they should be renting rooms today."

This month, BACVA is slated to unveil a $500,000 branding strategy for the city, a move designed to improve Baltimore's image for tourists and give the city more name recognition.

Though Doggett hired the national firm that created the new slogan - which has yet to be revealed - she is leaving just as BACVA will begin its share of the strategy, leveraging the new gimmick to bring Baltimore more business. "That may be the single biggest initiative she will get credit for when it's a success," Bishop said.

Kirby Fowler, president of Downtown Partnership, said the city needs a way to refine its image in the eyes of potential tourists who have never been here - people who often assume Baltimore is a dirty, dangerous place.

"For 15 years that I've been in Baltimore, there has not been a strong brand," Fowler said. "I hope I fall in love with the [new] brand."

With Doggett gone from BACVA, the job of following through on these challenges falls to Ronnie L. Burt, the agency's vice president of convention sales and services since February 2005. He was named interim president.

BACVA's board will soon begin a search for a permanent replacement, Hale

Sun reporters Doug Donovan, Allison Connolly and John Fritze contributed to this article.

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