City’s Visitor Center to close

Published 12:38 am Sunday, December 11, 2011

Roughly 10,000 visitors pass through the doors of Washington’s Visitor Center each year.
But, beginning Jan. 1, 2012, visitor-greeting services will be taken over by the Washington-Beaufort County Chamber of Commerce.
The current Visitor Center, located at 138 S. Market St., will close on or before that date.
One greeter, outsourced to the chamber by the City of Washington’s Tourism Development Authority, will be stationed at the chamber building, sited at 102 Stewart Parkway.
Relevant to this move, the chamber’s offices will be open seven days a week, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.
At present, the tourism authority has one full-time director, Lynn Lewis, and three part-time staff members.
One of those part-time members will relocate with Lewis to new offices in the former greenroom of the Washington Civic Center, 110 N. Gladden St.
The Civic Center is owned by the city and operated by the tourism authority, which rules out rental costs for the authority’s newly placed administrative offices.
The Market Street site presently costs the authority $1,200 a month in rent, Lewis said.
One other part-time staff member at the visitor center will work as the greeter at the chamber, with the cost of that member to be picked up by the authority, explained Catherine Glover, executive director of the chamber.
Overall, this consolidation of services should save the authority roughly $20,000 a year after the first year and some one-time costs of the move, according to Lewis.
“There are a lot of factors that come into play,” Lewis said of the outsourcing decision, jointly approved by the authority’s board and the chamber’s board.
Lewis pointed to two primary reasons for the change: a three-year extension of the authority’s management contract for the Civic Center and the adoption of a fresh strategic plan for her agency.
“That really focuses our efforts more on getting people here,” Lewis said of the plan.
Glover echoed Lewis, pointing out the chamber handled greeting duties for years before the Visitor Center opened.
“The goal is to get the people here,” Glover said of the authority. “It’s usually not necessarily their job, once they’re here, to greet them.”
Lewis responded to a question about the possible shifting of live performances from the Turnage Theater, the doors of which will close indefinitely as of Dec. 17, to the Civic Center.
Historically, the Civic Center was the city’s primary public-performance space before the newly restored Turnage reopened in November 2007.
The green room space that had been used by Civic Center performers might not be accessible once the changeover occurs, but Lewis indicated the authority has flexibility when it comes to accommodating groups that rent the center.
“We know what the needs of our current renters are,” she said.
The authority’s resolve to move its administrative offices was arrived at before the Turnage Theaters Foundation announced the theater would close, Lewis pointed out.
The overarching message, she suggested, is that visitors to Washington will continue to be greeted seven days a week by someone who wants them here.
It’s the authority’s mission, in line with state legislation, to market the city and attract leisure and business travelers, she related.
The tourism authority has an annual budget of $344,540, including Civic Center and tourism operations, Lewis said.
The authority’s main revenue stream is derived from collections of occupancy taxes levied on hotels in the city, she said. The authority also reaps some money from the sales of souvenirs at the Visitor Center.
The Civic Center receives supplemental funding of $50,000 a year from the city, Lewis said.
Asked to comment on the closure of another downtown storefront — the Visitor Center, at the corner of Water and Market streets — Glover expressed hope a business would move into that slot soon.
“Dealing with the difficult economy, I think people are looking at new ways to do business,” she said.