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John Ricks

John Ricks will take over as Nebraska's state tourism director on Jan. 9. "I think the most important thing I can do, at least initially, is just listen," he says.

Ask what lured him to Nebraska, and the state's new tourism director recounts two moments from a decade-ago stop in the Panhandle.

One was watching a "monster" thunderstorm roll into the Scottsbluff area, John Ricks says.

The other was feeling a rut in a rock along the Oregon Trail. "You sit there and ask, 'How many covered wagons had to go through to make a rut in a rock?'"

Ricks, a longtime tourism booster and ad agency executive, says he'll bring an "unfamiliar eye" to Nebraska's travel promotion efforts.

"What's that magic out there that we can use to draw people?" he said Wednesday. "I guarantee we'll find out new stuff here that's really exciting."

The 67-year-old has traveled all over the world: He's an Army brat who was born in the Philippines, lived in Hawaii and Japan, went to school in Wisconsin, and has worked in travel marketing in that state and in Colorado. Most recently, he spent four years as assistant director of the Colorado Tourism Office.

Nebraska tourism is a "challenger brand" by comparison, he says. "That's OK, because that just makes you hungrier."

Ricks officially takes the reins at the Nebraska Tourism Commission on Jan. 9. His annual salary will be $102,000.

He will lead an agency still shaken by a critical state audit earlier this year. Auditors revealed that the commission reimbursed alcohol purchases using government money and allowed the contract for the state's main tourism marketing campaign to be overrun by $4.4 million.

Former Tourism Director Kathy McKillip, whose salary was $86,000, was fired in May as a result. The audit also stirred questions about lax oversight by the independent commission's nine-member board.

Lawmakers are expected to consider changes to the board's makeup next year. 

State Sen. John Stinner of Gering has said he is working with state travel officials on a proposal to restructure the Tourism Commission so it more closely resembles the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, with members who reflect the state's diverse geography. Stinner also hopes to include representatives from outside the tourism industry.

Stinner's effort was prompted by the audit as well as pre-existing concerns about how the commission was handling taxpayer money.

Ricks said his experience with a "fairly similar" issue in Colorado helped prepare him to be a good financial steward, to communicate with the public and the travel industry, and to effectively measure performance of the state's tourism promotion efforts.

"I'm personally thrilled that we have someone with such a great background excited about working here in Nebraska," said Todd Kirshenbaum, vice president of the Seward Area Chamber of Commerce and president of the Nebraska Travel Association.

Kirshenbaum said Ricks' résumé made him the obvious pick for the job.

"The experience Mr. Ricks brings from work in Colorado, where tourism is a critical driver of the state’s economy, is a big victory for the Cornhusker state,” said Brad Mellema, president of the Nebraska Association of Convention and Visitors Bureaus.

Ricks' hiring followed a monthslong search process that included public interviews with four finalists, including two from Nebraska. 

Gov. Pete Ricketts commended the Tourism Commission for its hire.

"I am hopeful that Ricks’ experience in state government and the tourism industry will bring new energy to Nebraska Tourism, so they can continue inviting the world to see how Nebraska is growing," the governor said.

Ricks said his early goal will be learning more about Nebraska's tourism industry and what travel opportunities the state can offer.

"I think the most important thing I can do, at least initially, is just listen."

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7234 or zpluhacek@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @zachami.

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Assistant city editor

Zach Pluhacek is an assistant city editor.

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