Waynesboro City Council seems to be throwing in the towel on operating a brick-and-mortar tourist information center in the River City.
City staff made a presentation at Monday night’s City Council meeting recommending that the Rockfish Gap Tourist Information Center at the top of Afton Mountain is permanently closed – and made a pitch to explore a new center located on the East Main Street corridor.
However, Council members feedback after a short presentation seemed to nix the idea of exploring a new location for a destination center – at least for now.
The current center is operated solely by the City of Waynesboro and closed for the season on Nov. 13. At one time, Augusta County shared the expenses of the center but withdrew funding more than a decade ago.
“The general area is neglected and the remoteness of the location raises concerns for safety for our volunteers and guests,” said City Manager Mike Hamp in his introductory remarks. “For a variety of reasons, I do not believe that the location effectively promotes visitation to the city nor does it enhance our brand as a community.”
Council members expressed support for terminating the lease for that location.
The Director of Economic Development and Tourism for the City said a regional information center at the top of Afton Mountain in the future might be a good idea but felt there is still a lot to do before that idea would be feasible.
“We firmly believe that in the right environment, at the right time, the concept of a regional information center at the top of Afton mountain makes a lot of sense,” said Greg Hitchin. “Augusta County is diligently working to make the top of Afton Mountain a better place. But there’s a lot to do.
“And we believe that the realization of that dream, that concept, is a decade, if not decades away, from realization. So it brings us tonight as to what do we do in the meantime.”
Hitchin recommended to the Council that they consider a new certified information center sharing the benefits and requirements of working with the state to promote the River City but also destinations throughout Virginia.
- an interstate sign at exit 99
- Distribution of materials at state welcome centers
- Listings in Virginia Tourism publications, online
- Virginia tourism training and materials
- Grant opportunities
- Proximity to interstate
- Open weekends and 365 days a year
- Parking areas and restroom facilities
- Owned by public entity
- Convenient and accessible location
- Display information for area/region/state
Hitchin said that today, phones and computers provide a lot of information to potential visitors. However, Hitchin said, research and surveys show that personal recommendations and meeting face to face with tourism officials or volunteers, goes a long way into guiding people to businesses in the area.
“Most of us, if not all of us, when we get to that new restaurant, or that new adventure, or the new place to go, we seek out someone to ask them their recommendations,” Hitchin said. “What’s the best thing on this menu for us to eat? What should I see first? What should I see if I only have a certain amount of time? We crave that personal experience. And our phones or online experience might get us there but to get us over the hurdle, we always ask for that personal experience.
“Surveys back up that information,” Hitchin said. “Face-to-face interaction combined with an easily readable map or brochure contribute to a visitor’s success and experience in that area. A high percentage of visitors when they look at something printed influence their decision while they’re in market. Not out of market planning it … once they are in market, they pick up something. They talk to someone, and it determines what they’re going to do while they’re there.
“So a destination visitor center creates a first impression and helps people stay longer and spend more money,” Hitchin said.
He said Council and staff have a decision to make: “Do we permanently close our tourist information center? Or do we look for a new location and move to that location?”
Closing the tourist information center, Hitchin said, means the city would lose their certification with the Virginia Tourism Corporation.
“We will see a slight net benefit to our budget that you just proposed passing, and the interstate signs will be removed. And I’m told we’ll get a bill for that,” he said. “The positive things, if we moved to new location, we’ll maintain those relationships with the state. We’ll be able to create a positive first impression within the city limits, have a direct impact on local spending from those visitors and tourists, and our dream is to create a destination experience.”
Hitchin reminded Council that Waynesboro is uniquely located – “the only place on the planet where the Shenandoah National Park, Blue Ridge Parkway and Appalachian Trail meet. Eighty thousand cars go through the Rockfish Gap entrance center into Shenandoah National Park. Sixteen million people travel to the Blue Ridge Parkway every year. We need to make part of those people come downtown, to have a reason to come downtown.”
Hitchin said that the East Main Corridor would be an ideal place for the new center with thriving businesses including Basic City Beer, Rockfish Gap Outfitters, Commonwealth Crush and Blue Ridge Bucha, to name a few.
“We envision a new Waynesboro Tourist Information Center to be on East Main Street which is in the city limits be slightly larger than it currently is. And just the fact that we’re there will be a catalyst for continued growth and continued business to move that area and create a destination experience center for visitors to come and experience what we have to offer on four main points: outdoor recreation, the history of our community … hiking opportunities, the leisure piece of that of that opportunity to create family memories by having different things within the visitor center,” Hitchin said. “Of course, our traditional maps and brochures but all centered by having a person there to share their personal experiences on how and what to see within the City of Waynesboro.”
City Councilor Terry Short expressed support for terminating the Afton Mountain building lease but also asked for a full understanding of what it will cost the city to do so.
Short said he felt the cost of a new center was “a huge investment.”
Short said he has shared with staff multiple times the idea of exploring the purchase of an easement opposite the exit 99 intersection off Interstate 64 to erect a large sign directing visitors to fuel and breweries and shopping in Waynesboro.
“We’re not going to hit everybody off in the National Park or Blue Ridge Parkway, but we weren’t anyway,” Short said. “In this instance, you’d be able to at least get the eyeballs of tens of thousands of vehicles every day to have a reason to turn left.”
Short said he understands information centers are effective in more rural areas of Virginia and America – but doesn’t see the same benefit for a city of Waynesboro’s size.
“I would like … for staff to actually explore what the cost of an easement would be to acquire right of way to erect a sign in that fashion,” Short said. “Had we done that a decade ago, my thought is that it probably would have been bought and paid for already.”
Short also said that the current tourist information center is named Rockfish Gap Tourist Information Center – not Waynesboro Tourist Information Center – despite the fact that Waynesboro is operating it on its own.
“The very branding of it doesn’t even say that the citizens of Waynesboro, who are the only ones paying for it and had been the only ones paying for it for over a decade … that city is not even acknowledged with it.”
Embattled City Councilor Jim Wood agreed with Short about the possible impact of signage near the interstate exit ramp.
“I’d love to know more about the easement,” Wood said. “I’d definitely like more about that.”
Hamp said staff would take the direction of Council and abandon plans to explore East Main Street as a potential location for a new center.
The City Manager expressed thanks to everyone who has worked at the information center over the last decade.
“I would also like to take this opportunity to thank publicly the staff and the volunteers who, through the years, have delivered dedicated service above and beyond the call, and through some trying circumstances, to serve and promote Waynesboro as a visitation destination,” Hamp said. “For years, they have remained committed to promoting visitation and remaining at the strategic location at the intersections of I-64, Route 250, the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Skyline Drive.”