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Nebraska might have a new state tourism director.

A former Colorado travel official with three decades of experience emerged Friday as the top candidate to helm the embattled Nebraska Tourism Commission.

John Ricks of Lafayette, Colorado, still needs to accept the position and clear a formal background check. But after interviews Friday with four finalists, commissioners voted quickly and unanimously to offer him the job.

"The satisfaction I get from luring someone to a destination ... that really, really juices me," Ricks told commissioners during his interview, held in a conference room at Pinnacle Bank Arena.

He didn't respond to a message left on his cellphone later Friday.

If he accepts the job, Ricks would take over an agency which remains shaken by a damning and well-documented state audit.

The investigation by State Auditor Charlie Janssen's office revealed, among other things, that the commission reimbursed alcohol purchases using government money and allowed advertising firm Bailey Lauerman to overrun its contract for the state's main tourism marketing campaign by $4.4 million. 

The findings, released in April, cost former tourism director Kathy McKillip her job.

"I take the stewardship of public funds very seriously," Ricks told commissioners Friday.

He said transparency will be key as the agency works to rebuild its reputation: "I think that being totally open with everything is the only way to go."

Fifty-four people applied for the position. Other finalists included Kim Kwapnioski of Columbus, former director of the Norfolk Area Visitors Bureau; Mattie Scheeter of Lincoln, former sales director for the Sioux Falls Convention and Visitors Bureau; and Joseph McCorvey, a hotel sales director and longtime tourism marketing professional from Akron, Ohio.

Commissioners spent about three hours interviewing candidates Friday and briefly met in closed session to weigh their options. 

Ricks said his passion for tourism made him the best choice.

It's disappointing many Americans don't use their vacation time, he said: "They should just get out and go somewhere.”

For commissioners, Ricks' strengths were his experience with state-level tourism promotion and his extensive work in surrounding states, said Chairwoman Deb Loseke of Columbus.

Ricks resigned his previous job as associate director of the Colorado Tourism Office, a position he held nearly five years, in November 2015 after his boss left to become an adviser for that state's governor.

Before joining the Colorado Tourism Office, he spent 28 years in the marketing industry, and helped oversee a national tourism promotion campaign for Wyoming called "Forever West" — which, according to his resume, raised $68 per each dollar invested.

Ricks earned his bachelor's degree in radio, TV, film and journalism from the Unviersity of Wisconsin.

He said he hasn't been to a state where tourism isn't among the top industries.

"This is an economic engine for a state."

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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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