Members leave group, request ouster of director

Remark fallout plagues KPTMC

Posted: Friday, April 27, 2001

Waves of response are pounding the shores of Kenai Peninsula tourism as organizations and businesses across the state learn of racist comments allegedly made by the executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council.

Meanwhile, the KPTMC board plans to issue a statement this morning, said Faron Owen, who was issued a letter of reprimand and ordered to meet in person with the individuals who overheard his March 30 comments in Homer's Pratt Museum Store.

Owen would not comment Thursday night on what the announcement would be. Neither would Julie Tauriainen, the only KPTMC board member who could be reached Thursday night.

Saying the board's initial response to Owen's comments "wasn't enough," museum director Michael Hawfield has since pulled the museum's KPTMC membership.

Era Aviation has followed suit, and other businesses and organizations are registering their concern and seeking Owen's resignation.

On Wednesday, a letter from Mike LeNorman, Era's director of sales and marketing, was faxed to KPTMC's Kenai office canceling Era's membership.

"We serve a lot of communities in the state," LeNorman said. "Our customers and employees come from all walks of life. To further support this organization is not fair to our customers or our employees. It wouldn't reflect positively with the way we do business."

LeNorman said Era has been involved with KPTMC for a number of years, participating in the Kenai Peninsula Winter Games, the Halibut 100 and advertising in KPTMC publications.

"But we cannot be associated with them right now. It's just as simple as that," LeNorman said. "Does that mean we won't support them in the future? In the near future, yes, it does. But at some point when it's beneficial, we will give them our support again."

Of Owen, in particular, LeNorman said, "It's one of those things that he's probably done a good job for the organization, but all it takes is one little deal like this and it's irreparable."

CIRI Alaska Tourism Corp. also has also threatened to sever its relationship with the council.

"Unfortunately, in light of the alleged comments, if the organization condoned that type of behavior, we have no choice but to pull our memberships. It would make no sense for us to belong as a member," wrote president Dennis Brandon in a statement to the Clarion.

On Tuesday, Patrick Marrs, the president of the Seward Chamber of Commerce, and Julie Tauriainen, that organization's executive director, released a statement that called Owen's comments "insensitive, unprofessional and intolerable."

"The incident has tarnished the reputation of the organization and, given the circumstances, the executive director should strongly consider resigning," Marrs and Tauriainen wrote.

Earlier in the week, the Kenai Convention and Visitors Bureau announced in a prepared statement it was re-evaluating its working relationship and marketing partnership with KPTMC and said the incident has damaged the credibility of KPTMC.

"... (W)e find it intolerable and unacceptable to make this kind of racial slur against Alaska's Native people," the Kenai convention bureau's statement read in part.

"It's unacceptable for anyone in a professional capacity, whose responsibility is to represent the Kenai Peninsula in tourism marketing to make this kind of culturally insensitive and crass remark to travel writers, joke or not."

While accompanying two free-lance travel writers to Homer's Pratt Museum Store on March 30, Owen reportedly was asked by one of the writers if Native people still used ulus.

Owens' response, as reported to museum director Hawfield by two museum employees and one person visiting the museum store, was "No, they sell them to buy booze -- I can get that for five bucks from a drunken Native."

Owen, however, said his words were, "You can buy ivory carvings from drunk Natives in Nome for $5."

From Anchorage, Bruce Bustamante, president and CEO of the Anchorage Convention and Visitors Bureau, said, "We're taking the position that there is zero tolerance because (comments such as these) offend everyone in the tourism industry."

Reflecting on KPTMC's important to peninsula tourism, Derotha Ferraro, executive director of the Homer Chamber of Commerce said, "We are not questioning our membership at all. The Homer Chamber of Commerce is happy to continue our membership. ... KPTMC is a very important organization and plays an important role in tourism marketing."

Stefanie Gorder, former KPTMC executive director, praised KPTMC for the value it holds for the peninsula.

"It's an incredible organization for what it does for local businesses," said Gorder, who left KPTMC in 1998 and now serves as senior vice president of sales and marketing for Premier Alaska Tours. "It has to hold hands with local businesses. It must and has to exist because we rely on them to give us the proper destination information."

Bill Popp, who serves as liaison between the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly and KPTMC, said, "My main concern right now is to try and keep (this incident) from affecting KPTMC as a whole. It's done such good work in past years. I just don't want to lose this important tool to tourism on the peninsula."

Popp reported having received "nothing but negative reaction" to Owen's comments.

"It's absolutely doing what I predicted it would because they didn't deal with the situation immediately and directly," Popp said of KPTMC board response.

Vernon Chimegalrea, cultural outreach director for the Alaska Native Heritage Center, said Owen's comments highlight the need for cross-cultural education.

"That way, people understand the views and lifestyles of the Alaska Native residents," Chimegalrea said.

Calling for Owen's resignation, Clare Swan, a member of the board of directors for Cook Inlet Region Inc., said, "It seems to be that, sadly, racism is alive and well. If we don't speak up when we hear it, our children might be listening," Swan said.

Speaking for the Ninilchik Traditional Council, Michelle Steik called the situation "pretty outrageous."

"The fact that it took so long to come to light is pretty upsetting as well," Steik said. "They kept it under wraps for so long. That's a little strange."

John Tetpon, communications director for the Alaska Federation of Natives, said remarks of this kind are unfortunate.

"I would encourage the good people of the Kenai Peninsula to consider very seriously the removal of Mr. Owen from his position, as he represents the entire region in terms of tourism and making people feel welcome to the communities of the peninsula," said Tetpon, a former Homer resident. "The Native community does spend a good deal of money down on the Kenai Peninsula and has always been supportive of economic growth in the region. For a person to disparage a large contributing segment of a population is a disgrace. It's disheartening."

Tetpon serves on the Economic Boycott Planning Committee with Desa Jacobsson, of Juneau. The committee was formed after the recent paintball attacks on Alaska Natives in Anchorage.

"The ugly things boil to the top," Jacobsson said. "But you also see the hearts of the community when they ban together to calm that insidious monster called 'racism.' Our congratulations and respect to those businesses that have responded the way they have. God bless the people of the peninsula for their positive response."

Speaking of the presence of racist attitudes in Alaska, Jacobsson said, "We grew up with it, and we are not going to leave an environment like this for our grandchildren to inherit. We are not."

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