VisitPittsburgh officials defend pay packages

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Responding to critics saying VisitPittsburgh executives are overpaid and undersupervised, the nonprofit tourist agency says an outside review shows salaries are in line with industry standards.

On Friday, the agency released a two-page summary of a report by Downtown consulting firm Cowden Associates that reviewed salaries, bonuses and compensation practices.

The study showed VisitPittsburgh's compensation sits right in the middle of its peer group, which included a mix of nonprofit and for-profit tourism agencies, including counterparts in Columbus, Ohio, and Cleveland.

Base salaries are a bit lower than average; four long-standing employees are being paid dramatically more than their peers. The assessment also lauded the agency's internal pay-for-performance program.

"It reaffirmed what I knew to be true," VisitPittsburgh CEO Craig T. Davis said. "But all the attention that's been paid shows we have much work to do."

By "attention," he means the healthy heapings of criticism laid upon the agency by state Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, who has questioned the very need for VisitPittsburgh's services. He's been joined by Allegheny County Councilman Matt Drozd, who said in May the organization's executives are overpaid and answer to no one.

In a statement released following the salary report, Mr. Ferlo stuck to his guns.

"This public agency has expended millions of dollars with high executive salaries, no accountability or oversight of its performance, and little to show by way of ensuring a financially solvent taxpayer-funded convention center," he wrote. "It should be reconstituted directly under the oversight of the county executive with mayoral input and, in my opinion, private sector promotional agencies."

Legally known as the Pittsburgh Convention & Visitor's Bureau Inc., VisitPittsburgh is charged with bringing bookings to the David L. Lawrence Convention Center and supporting the region's tourism industry. The agency is largely funded by Allegheny County's hotel tax and pulled in $9.6 million in revenue in 2011.

Mr. Davis is the highest-paid executive, with an annual compensation package totaling $225,273. The next four executives each makes more than $150,000.

The CEO welcomed the salary report and blamed himself for not making his organization's benefits to the community more clear. Tourism is growing in Allegheny County, he said, and he believes his staff members fully earn their salaries.

"It is a big industry in Pittsburgh," he said. "It's our job to remind local residents how important this business is to the local economy."

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Andrew McGill: amcgill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1497.


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