Johnson named
tourism director

The ex-transportation chief
has little tourism experience

By Russ Lynch

Rex Johnson, a state director of transportation under Gov. John Waihee in the 1990s, yesterday was picked as the new director of the Hawaii Tourism Authority and immediately acknowledged he has very little background in the visitor industry.

But that's not the point, said Johnson, whose current position is director of facilities with the Research Corporation of the University of Hawaii. What is needed is a good administrator and that's why he believes he was chosen, Johnson said.

"We've got a board that is just chock full of marketing expertise. My background is administrative and that's what the board was looking for," Johnson said.

"This authority has all the potential in the world," he said.

As transportation director from 1991 to 1994, Johnson was in charge of Hawaii's airports, harbors and highways.

State Sen. Donna Mercado Kim is not concerned that Johnson did not come from the tourism industry. In fact, that may very well be a plus, said the Democrat chairman of the Senate Tourism and Intergovernmental Affairs committee, who has often been critical of the way Hawaii's tourism promotion is managed.

"I think I will be able to work with him. I am kind of glad to see someone who will probably be able to look at things independently," Kim said. Anyway, she said, everybody in Hawaii has experienced the visitor industry in some way.

"You don't really have to have a lot of background, but you have to really be able to look at things and assess it," she said.

Johnson, who is scheduled to take his new post Sept. 1, is replacing $1-a-year volunteer Rick Humphreys. His salary is being negotiated.

This year's session of the Legislature set a cap on the HTA director's salary. It would work out at about $325,000 a year right now, including benefits, based on the portion set aside from the HTA's budget of about $60 million a year. That money is derived from the state hotel room tax.

Kim said she hopes the new director would get paid less than the limit to start with so he can be rewarded later for good performance.

International tourism consultant Chuck Gee, retired dean of the UH School of Travel Industry Management, said he wished the nine-month selection process had been more public and wondered why the job description wasn't limited to someone with tourism experience.

But the important thing, Gee said, is that the HTA get moving. "The (tourist) industry has not grown for 10 years, except for one year, in 2000," when every competing destination grew too, he said.

"Maybe we need to find somebody who can think outside the box" and a past direct involvement in tourism could actually be a disadvantage, Gee said.

In the HTA announcement, newly elected board Chairman Mike McCartney said there were several highly qualified candidates for executive director but "the board felt that the overall best candidate was Rex Johnson, given his successful track record in both the public and private sectors.

"Rex brings strong leadership, communication and administrative skills to this organization," McCartney said.

Johnson served from 1983 to 1991 as a top official of the Hawaii Community Development Authority, the state agency responsible for development in Kakaako. After his stint as transportation director he joined the Nature Conservancy as its Hawaii executive director and held that post from 1994 to 2001.

In September, he moved to UH's research corporation, where he has been responsible for the planning, design, construction and development of the new UH medical school to be built in Kakaako.

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