KPTMC director resigns

Ulu remark dices Owen

Posted: Sunday, April 29, 2001

A month after saying words that couldn't be erased, the executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Marketing Council has submitted his resignation.

At a special meeting of KPTMC's board of directors Thursday evening, Faron Owen's resignation was accepted and board president Bill Wasowicz was named interim executive director until a replacement can be selected.

The resignation is the culmination of an incident on March 30, when Owen accompanied two free-lance travel writers in Homer 's Pratt Museum Store. Two museum employees and a visitor to the museum, Homer resident and Alaska Native Lucy Kuhns, reported to museum director Michael Hawfield that Owen was asked by one of the writers if Natives still use ulus. Owen replied, "No, they sell them to buy booze. I can get that for five bucks from a drunken Native." Owen, however, said his response was, "You can buy ivory carvings from drunk Natives in Nome for $5."

In response, the board of directors issued Owen a letter of reprimand and ordered him to meet in person with museum staff and Kuhns. A public letter of apology was e-mailed by Owen to the Homer News for publication.

Reacting to the incident, Pratt Museum pulled its KPTMC membership. Era Aviation followed suit and CIRI Alaska Tourism Corp. threatened to do so. Others, like the Kenai Convention and Visitors Bureau, began re-evaluating their relationship with KPTMC. Still others called for Owen's removal, including Bill Popp, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly's liaison with KPTMC.

Contacted Friday evening, Owen declined to comment. Wasowicz could not be contacted.

Board vice president Chris Degernes labeled Owen's comment "an inappropriate remark, and I'm not condoning it, but it was totally out of character for Faron."

''We have to refocus toward the future,'' she said. ''There's been a lot of feeding frenzy over an inappropriate remark. Now we must rebuild a relation of trust with the communities, our members, with all the people it potentially affected.''

In KPTMC's press release issued Friday afternoon, Owen said his resignation was the best course of action for the organization.

"I have devoted the last three years of my life to the success of KPTMC, and it deeply disturbs me to see the organization come under fire the way it recently has. It is very upsetting that an inappropriate remark made by me could lead to this, so to protect the credibility of this exceptional organization, I must tender my resignation. I would encourage both the public as well as the (Kenai Peninsula) Borough Assembly to recognize that the actions of one person should not jeopardize the success of the entire peninsula's tourism future."

The press release credited Owen with developing a vacation planner, creating two recreation maps, hosting three Web sites, and coordinating the regional tourism conference, the Halibut 100 and the Peninsula Winter Games, as well as coordinating the peninsula's instate and national marketing campaign.

Upon learning of Owen's resignation, Kuhns said she had wanted the board to deal with the situation "as quietly as possible."

"I think it went too far," said Kuhns. "People need to be aware of how they treat other people, and I didn't grow up to treat other people bad. I grew up to respect other people."

She said Owens called her on the telephone to apologize.

"I accepted his apology and forgave him," Kuhns said. "And I told him I was very hurt, but hopefully he could learn from it. We all need to treat people just like we want to be treated. I was hoping he'd continue working there. I wish he didn't have to quit."

Owen's resignation may open the door for the museum to renew its membership.

"It certainly has improved things," Hawfield said. "I think since that was the fundamental problem that we had, taking decisive action was the appropriate thing, and we'll now be able to reassess where we stand with KPTMC. We certainly are supportive of the function and want to see it successful and thrive because we all benefit, but only if they deal effectively and decisively with these kinds of issues. I think it was the right thing to do, and we all just need to move ahead."

Mike LeNorman, Era Aviation's director of sales and marketing, said, "We'll take a hard look at what level of involvement that we'll have in the future with the organization."

LeNorman said Owen's resignation should have been the initial response.

"I think it would have alleviated a lot of the industry's concerns by doing so," LeNorman said.

Bill Popp agreed that Owen's resignation was appropriate.

"It was the right thing to do, and I'm glad this is the course of action Faron chose," Popp said. "There'll be some fences that need to be mended, but I believe this organization has a history that deserves consideration in mending those fences. I think KPTMC's very important to the future of tourism growth on the Kenai Peninsula, and hopefully we can put this situation behind us and move on."

Eric Downey, Alaska Wildland Adventures' marketing director, said with some "hard work and some good direction, (KPTMC) will be able to recover, although it will take time."

"Public reaction shows that Alaskans will not tolerate racial insensitivity," Downey said. "Faron and the board did what needed to be done. I hope the board is now able to reassure the various stakeholders and hire a more culturally sensitive director. KPTMC has a great staff."

On behalf of the Kenai Convention and Visitors Bureau, executive director Kathy Tarr said, "We're relieved he stepped down. I think it will be in the best interests of the organization, and I think that's what it had to come to. And I wish him the best in whatever he pursues next."

Regarding long-term effects, Tarr said, "We'll be discussing that at our next board meeting. One of the big issues is going to be if we should work directly with the Alaska Travel Industry Associa-tion (instead of going through KPTMC)."

During KPTMC's 10-year existence, Tarr said there have been "a lot of changes in tourism marketing on the peninsula."

"The communities now are much more sophisticated in their marketing programs," Tarr said. "Each have visitor guides and do their own advertising. There are a lot of opportunities for us to cooperate with each other. We're all in this together. How KPTMC will fit into that in the future is something we all need to discuss."

Cultural sensitivity has been brought to the forefront by the incident, according to Tarr.

"This has given all of us a reason to stop and think about how we answer questions," she said. "Especially when we're in a professional capacity or representing an organization."

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