HELENA — News of the sudden departure of the state’s top tourism official sent shockwaves through Montana’s tourism industry over the weekend.
Sources from the state’s tourism industry and a source close to the Department of Commerce said Betsy Baumgart, the longtime director of the Montana office of tourism, was fired Friday afternoon.
Recently-appointed commerce director Dore Schwinden confirmed that as of Friday, Baumgart no longer works for the Commerce Department. Baumgart was hired to head the state’s tourism office in 2002 during the administration of Republican Gov. Judy Martz.
Schwinden declined to comment on the details of Baumgart’s departure from the agency.
“She’s entitled to confidentiality and the right of privacy in any kind of personnel matter,” Schwinden said Monday.
Asked if Baumgart resigned from the position, Schwinden said: “I really can’t talk about the details.”
Messages left at Baumgart’s home Monday were not returned.
Webb Brown, president of the Montana Chamber of Commerce, said he was stunned when he learned of Baumgart’s departure.
“I have not heard Betsy talking at all about leaving the job,” said Brown, who first heard of Baumgart’s departure Friday afternoon. “I would be very surprised if it was her decision.”
Baumgart is the third high-level commerce department official to leave the agency in recent months.
Former division administrator Dave Cole’s abrupt resignation in March made headlines when Cole told Lee Newspapers that he was forced out of his job by the Schweitzer administration. Cole said he was pushed out after he responded to a request from a GOP lawmaker regarding grants to local communities that Schweitzer had frozen. The governor’s office denied playing a role in Cole’s ouster.
Schwinden’s predecessor, Tony Preite, retired as commerce director on Aug. 1 after heading the department for 5-1/2 years.
Schwinden said Anna Marie Moe, program manager for Visitor and Industry Services, was promoted to interim division administrator of the Montana Promotion Division.
Brown said leaders in the state’s tourism and travel industry were happy with the job Baumgart had done over the years as the state’s top tourism official.
“She’s been a very competent administrator and she’s been a tireless travel advocate for the state,” Brown said. “Betsy is well-respected in the industry as an expert in the field, as well as being a very ethical person. I think there will be shockwave through the travel industry and a lot of people asking, ‘what is going on?'”
Lucy Weeder, chair of the Montana Innkeepers Association, said she was “disappointed and confused” to hear of Baumgart’s sudden departure.
“Betsy is widely respected by members of our association and by tourism professionals across the state,” Weeder said in a written statement Monday. “She has done an admirable job in leading the efforts of the Montana Office of Tourism and we will miss her enthusiasm, leadership and her dedication.”
Weeder said tourism is on the rise in Montana despite an ongoing national recession that has dampened tourism in other parts of region. Weeder said Montana innkeepers are reporting record number of guests and the highest level of occupancy in years.
According to a recent report from the independent research firm Smith Travel Research, Montana’s lodging occupancy level for July increased by 7.8 percent compared to July of 2009. The rest of the Rocky Mountain region experienced only a 4.3 percent growth during that same region.
“We attribute these positive numbers to the staff and leadership at the Montana Office of Tourism who have done a first class job in promoting our state and welcoming visitors,” Weeder said. “We thank Betsy for her efforts and we offer our continuing support to the mission and the dedicated staff at the Montana Office of Tourism.”
Schwinden said the Commerce Department will begin searching for Baumgart’s replacement immediately. He said a job announcement will posted soon.
“We’ve got a legislative session coming up, we’re in the middle of the executive planning process, and the promotions division has a very lot of important programmatic things going on,” Schwinden said.
Note: I’ll update with links later today…