NEW PORT RICHEY — For seven years, Eric Keaton has lived and breathed Pasco County tourism.
Now he is leaving, just as his department is on the cusp of a major expansion.
Keaton resigned last month to take a job as vice president of marketing and communications for Suncoast YMCA.
“We’ve made great strides, and there’s a lot of momentum being built right now,” Keaton said. “I’ll always be an ambassador for Pasco County tourism. I’ll always be rooting for them.”
Commissioners are set to approve a budget that would add a sports marketing position to the tourism staff. In addition, Keaton’s duties as the county spokesman and overseeing production of Pasco County TV have been reassigned to a new public information officer position that will answer directly to County Administrator Michele Baker.
“We’ve needed a public information officer for a while,” Baker said. “It was hard, when budgets were so tight, to create a new position.”
Keaton was hired in 2006 as a public communications specialist but moved temporarily to the leadership role a month later after the former manager resigned. As the liaison between the county commission and its Tourist Development Council, Keaton has helped develop a sports marketing plan as Pasco leaders seek to expand beyond festivals and attract tournaments.
“I think Eric was instrumental in the success of the Dick’s lacrosse tournament finding Pasco County as their winter home,” commission Chairman Ted Schrader said. “That was sort of the beginning of that sports marketing brand.”
Ninety teams from across the United States and Canada participated in the four-day Dick’s Sporting Goods Tournament of Champions in Wesley Chapel last year. It had a $3.5 million economic impact in central Pasco. Tournament directors think there will be 100 teams this year.
Keaton helped bring numerous fitness events and mud runs to Pasco County. The county has hosted roller skating competitions and a Professional Bowlers Association senior event. He made worldwide headlines by marketing directly to nudists, and he helped launch a film commission. Last year’s tourist tax revenue was the second highest on record.
“Our tourism product has grown exponentially since 2006,” Keaton said. “We have a new plan, new events and a new marketing campaign.”
Baker said finding a successor to Keaton is one of her priorities. The $53,000 a year job was posted on the county’s website a week ago.
“Finding the right person is more important than finding someone fast,” Baker said. “I want to give it at least two weeks before I start to sift through the applications. But I would say if someone is interested in the job, they should apply fast. We don’t want to dally.”
The county already has received 19 applications for the job, including six from out of state. Baker said she’s looking for someone with a great attitude. Familiarity with the Tampa Bay market is not a requirement.
“I want someone who gets what we’re about and is committed to public service,” she said. “Whether they come from Tampa Bay or San Francisco Bay is really less important.”
As difficult as it is to lose Keaton, Baker said, his departure creates an opportunity to look for someone “who can take us to the next level.”
“It’s so important for us to continue to grow our tourism brand,” she said. “We are a destination for sports tournaments, but that’s not all we are. We’re also the Gulf of Mexico, and we’re nature tourism, and we’re Saddlebrook, and we’re Giraffe Ranch. We’re all those things.”