Hundreds of friends and associates of Reyn Bowman filed into Rigsbee Hall, a chic downtown space with sleek concrete floors and exposed brick, for a retirement party for the 20-year leader of the Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau. They sipped locally brewed beer and snacked on hors d'oeuvres. Lawyers, activists and elected officials posed for photos with the man of the hour—even those who have bumped heads with the oft-opinionated and impassioned leader.
Bowman, 61, built the DCVB from the ground up since its inception in 1989. As the organization's CEO and president, he has gained national respect for his marketing know-how and his vehement improvement and burnishing of Durham's image. Over the past two decades, Bowman has helped put Durham on the map—not just as part of the Triangle or as Raleigh's sidekick—but as a dynamic city with its own pounding pulse.
In fact, Bowman's dogged work and community presence was so valuable to some local leaders that, years ago, they agreed to give Bowman a generous severance package if he stayed in his post.
Bowman will now collect nearly $275,000 in public tax money over the next four years, in addition to standard retirement benefits from the state. The contract—official and binding—will ensure Bowman gets his money, even as the DCVB struggles with declining income, budget cuts and layoffs.
At least one public official is criticizing the severance package, which was awarded as part of Bowman's employment contract by the Tourism Development Authority, the board that governs Durham's visitors bureau, approves its budget and determines employee performance and pay.
"I think Reyn's done a great job, but when you retire, you retire," said Durham County Manager Mike Ruffin. "To be entitled to some pay after retirement steps way outside the bounds of what I could consider to be reasonable ... I don't think public money should be used that way."
Other public officials, including County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow, City Manager Tom Bonfield, Durham Mayor Bill Bell and City Council members Eugene Brown and Diane Catotti, said they were unaware of the deal and couldn't comment.
According to the contract, Bowman was entitled to receive the entire $275,000 in a lump sum, but in October he agreed to a schedule of payments through 2013. On Tuesday, Bowman disclosed, albeit hesitantly, that he intends to donate $11,000 to the DCVB. Bowman said he had planned for his contribution to be anonymous, but stated his intentions after being asked by the Indy if he would return any of the severance money.
Newman Aguiar, a member of the Tourism Development Authority, called Bowman's agreement to take the money in installments "generous." "That is money he earned as part of his contract," Aguiar said. "Yes it was an incentive, but he earned it. That's money we owe him."
Aguiar said his board, composed of a dozen elected and appointed officials, including members of Durham's City Council and Board of County Commissioners, hoteliers and owners of other tourism-related businesses, has set aside the funds, knowing it had to pay Bowman at the end of his tenure.
The payment schedule gives the board more time, a boon to the DCVB, which is short on cash. Since 2008, the DCVB has slashed $1.2 million—more than a third of its annual budget—and last year laid off five staffers to save $117,500 in salaries. The bureau's three top executives also voluntarily took pay cuts of 15 to 20 percent, said Shelly Green, the DCVB's new CEO and president. Bowman himself gave up 20 percent of his salary last year, which was $178,200, Green said.
Just this month, as documented in public e-mails, Green asked Ruffin to consider suspending a year's worth of rent payments—about $50,000—on the building DCVB leases from the county at 101 E. Morgan St. Ruffin and Green are scheduled to meet on the matter next week, Ruffin said.
The bureau is funded entirely by revenue from the county's 6 percent occupancy tax—a mandatory levy on the cost of a hotel room. Financial troubles for the bureau have coincided with a decline in tourism and low room rates that have diluted the county's tax revenue. The occupancy tax generated $8.96 million in 2007--08 but dipped by about $1.3 million last year. In addition to funding the DCVB, the city and county also get occupancy tax funds. A portion of the funds also helps to pay off the Durham Performing Arts Center. Although some have criticized Bowman for not backing the DPAC, others say he was instrumental in raising the occupancy tax by 1 percent to fund a local theater in 2000.
He also has established several important programs within the DCVB, from a collaboration of local media relations officers to Durham Image Watch, a corps of residents who serve as eyes and ears for the DCVB, noting when and where Durham is mentioned in the news and other venues, and whether the representation was accurate.
Many have reflected on Bowman's passion—some have even called it an obsession—to ensure Durham gets its due. Kevin Costner, the star of the Bull City-based classic baseball flick Bull Durham, once referred in an interview to how much he enjoyed shooting the movie in Raleigh. It wasn't long before Bowman was on the phone with Costner's agent to correct the actor.
Bowman's dedication and tenacity were apparent to the Tourism Development Authority as soon as the board hired him in 1989. Just two years later, the board approved an employment contract with Bowman that allowed him one month's salary for every year he stayed in Durham, with a cap of 12 months, the contract shows. The severance was payable to Bowman even if he left voluntarily, the contract says. The board and bureau didn't want another city to lure Bowman away, Green said.
"Durham has always done things very thoughtfully," Green said. "It would have been really easy for someone to come in and offer him a lot more money, frankly, to move to another destination."
In an interview Tuesday, Bowman said the money was intended as an incentive for him to stay in Durham. "[The board] thought I was doing a really good job," Bowman said. "They felt it was only fair if I was going to give up that ability [to get a job elsewhere.] These people know how hard I work—full throttle. I've always appreciated that they never took for granted that I didn't have to do that."
By 2004, Bowman had already worked in Durham for more than 12 years, exceeding the cap. The board agreed to extend the severance package to include 19 months' pay, even if he left the job by his own choice. According to meeting minutes, all members of the board who were present—including County Commissioner Becky Heron, and Durham businessmen John Mallard, Ron Hunter and Tom Niemann—voted for the measure.
Niemann, Hunter and Mallard could not be reached by press time. Early this week, Heron said she didn't remember the details of the contract, just that Bowman got a "mighty good retirement package."
(Only two of the members who extended Bowman's severance package remain on the board. They are Hunter and City Councilwoman Cora Cole-McFadden. Cole-McFadden was on the board but was absent from the 2004 meeting in which the severance cap was extended.)
Bill Kalkhof, president of Downtown Durham Inc., was on the 2004 board, too, but he abstained from voting. Kalkhof considered Bowman a professional colleague and felt it would be inappropriate to weigh in on a colleague's compensation package, he said.
"His contract did not give me any heartburn," Kalkhof said. "It seemingly was in line with what other [convention/ visitors bureau] CEO/ presidents were receiving."
Green, who has worked at DCVB for 10 years and took over the CEO role this month, said that retention benefits or severance payments are common among the heads of visitors bureaus, although her own contract does not include any retention benefits, she said. She is entitled to a severance payment, but only if she is fired or laid off.
Green points to a 2008 study by Destination Marketing Association International showing that 65 percent of visitors bureaus with budgets similar in size to Durham's have contracts with their CEOs that include severance clauses. But it is unclear whether those severance packages are payable if the employee leaves voluntarily.
Former state Sen. Wib Gulley, the current secretary and treasurer of the Tourism Development Authority, said he thought the severance package was appropriate and not unusual for executives such as Bowman.
"For someone to raise questions about this in light of the extraordinary career and service that Reyn has contributed is terribly misguided," Gulley said.
Bowman could have made a lot more money working in the private sector, Gulley said. Public servants often work hard for smaller salaries because they are dedicated and love to do the work.
The Tourism Development Authority's payments to Bowman begin this month with a series of checks for $3,000 and will conclude in 2013 with monthly checks topping $9,000.
It took some "finagling" to work out the extended pay schedule, Bowman said, but he was willing to compromise to lessen the financial blow to his former employer.
"It's never been about the money for me," he said.
Corrections (Jan. 18, 2010): The print version of this article incorrectly stated the location of the Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau; the building is located at 101 E. Morgan St. Also, in describing the Tourism Authority Board, the story stated it was composed of elected officials; it also has appointed officials.