MYRTLE BEACH — The last time Brad Dean was in Puerto Rico, he was advising General Electric on whether or not to outsource manufacturing plants.
But when he starts as CEO of the island’s first-ever destination marketing organization at the end of April, Dean hopes to bring jobs back to the island, which is still recovering from a direct hit from Category 4 Hurricane Maria in September.
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He is returning in part because of a family connection — he met his his wife, Myriam, there when he worked for GE decades ago. But as the U.S. territory recovers from the hurricane, it’s also an opportunity to apply the guiding principle Dean used as he led the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce: tourism is, without exception, a force for good.
“I don’t believe Puerto Rico can recover fully without a much healthier tourism industry and a global brand. I think travel and tourism is their pathway back to recovery,” Dean said. “I think we can change lives if we do this right.”
But his return to the island was still rocky. When the Puerto Rican press first asked about Dean’s salary, island officials initially said that the DMO, funded with $25 million in public money, will be a private, nonprofit entity not subject to disclosure rules.
Dean later disclosed that his salary would start at $250,000 and include six months of housing assistance and potential bonuses. His total compensation package in Myrtle Beach was $434,856 in 2016.
“Clearly there is a level of distrust of government in Puerto Rico in general,” Dean said. “This is high stakes, and I don’t underestimate what’s at risk here for the people of Puerto Rico and for me personally”
Modernizing Myrtle Beach
Dean came to Myrtle Beach in the mid-’90s to run a new Hard Rock Cafe after working in finance for the company in Miami. Within a few years, he joined the chamber as its chief financial officer, and then succeeded CEO Ashby Ward, the longtime face of Myrtle Beach tourism, when Ward died in 2003.
As Ward led the chamber, the city was still largely a regional destination for the Carolinas with almost all of its visitation between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Dean, however, gradually incorporated new aspects to destination marketing, promoting specific sectors such as sports tourism that brought business in the spring and fall, working to expand air service at the local airport and jumping into online advertising.
Duane Parrish, director of the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, said Dean has been a stable leader for the state’s most lucrative tourism destination.
“(Dean has) seen it through difficult economic times and prosperous economic times,” Parrish said. “He has been one of the most influential people … for maximizing resources, both people and budget.”
Shortly after Dean took his role, the chamber also announced an ambitious goal: reaching 20 million Grand Strand visitors by 2020. By the chamber’s own measurement, 18 million came to the Myrtle Beach area last year.
Marion Foxworth, a former county councilman who represented Myrtle Beach, said that just as the chamber modernized its marketing approach when Dean took over for Ward, the group again has the ability to reassess its strategy with Dean’s departure.
The region, which was yet again the second-fastest growing in the country last year, could benefit from a marketing strategy that acknowledges the many retirees that have moved into and near Myrtle Beach, Foxworth said.
“The wild spring break and Bike Week (motorcycle rally) are somewhat a thing of the past,” he said. “It’s something that political and business leaders are going to have to recognize, plan for and work together to avoid bumping heads.”
A political operator
In addition to running the chamber, Dean has been a powerful force in the political realm, forging connections with local, state and national politicians.
“I will tell you, he enjoys it,” former City Councilman Wayne Gray said. “He can glad-hand and back-slap with the best of them. He can make you feel like you’re king of the hill.”
One of the group’s biggest political successes during Dean’s tenure has been the installation of the Tourism Development Fee, a 1 percent sales tax that devotes 80 percent of its revenues to tourism promotion. All of that marketing money is spent by the Myrtle Beach chamber, totaling more than $23 million in 2017.
According to Dean and other tourism officials, the fee has been a remarkable success, helping to usher in millions of visitors and grow the area’s economy exponentially.
But there has always been a cloud over the circumstances that led to the tax, which was first enabled by legislation from the General Assembly and then enacted by Myrtle Beach City Council. In 2009, the year the TDF began, more than $300,000 in campaign contributions were funneled to several local and state political candidates through a group of limited liability companies.
To some, the donations looked like political payback for the TDF. Local attorney Shep Guyton, a former chairman of the chamber’s board, faces, to this day, 167 civil charges with the State Ethics Commission over the contributions.
The TDF has proved politically popular with voters in Myrtle Beach because it also offers property tax rollbacks, but some still criticize how the chamber spends the tax funds. A lawsuit filed April 5 in Horry County court claims that MBACC is mishandling public funds. The chamber’s board held a press conference on Tuesday to respond, calling the lawsuit a “baseless, vindictive attack.”
The board crowded behind a podium, but Dean took a position in the back of the the lobby, staying quiet. He declined to comment directly on the lawsuit, or whether it could affect his legacy in Myrtle Beach.
But just a few hours later, the chamber racked up another political success. City Council voted unanimously to extend the TDF until 2029 — ensuring the group’s primary source of marketing revenue was secure.
“This’ll be the legacy,” Dean said after the vote. “Now that’s the legacy.”