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WRJ welcome center says goodbye 

  • Closed since Amtrak service stopped in March due the pandemic, the Welcome Center at the train station in White River Junction, Vt., will not be reopening because of budget constraints at the state level. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/28/2020 9:30:01 PM
Modified: 9/29/2020 12:05:54 AM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — The state welcome center at the downtown train station will not reopen after state officials opted not to include funding for it in the state budget, citing low visitor numbers.

The center has been partly funded by a $37,500 grant from the Vermont Department of Buildings and General Services. The building is owned by the Vermont Agency of Transportation and the welcome center space is leased to the town of Hartford.

“This is a unique information center in that it’s staffed by the town of Hartford. … In the last few years the state has provided a grant to them and because of the financial constraints that we’re under due to COVID-19, we’re no longer able to pay that grant anymore,” Acting Buildings and General Services Commissioner Jennifer M.V. Fitch said in a phone interview Monday. “Now that we’ve taken it out of our budget, it will likely be difficult to put it back in in the future.”

Hartford was notified about the lack of funding in June, Parks and Recreation Director Scott Hausler wrote in an email. It was open seven days a week. In addition to the state grant, the town of Hartford and Amtrak also contributed funding. Amtrak paid for staffing during the times trains came into the station. For a time, it was run by the Hartford Area Chamber of Commerce.

“The purpose of the welcome center is to welcome visitors, to answer their questions and have a good pleasant experience when they’re visiting in Vermont,” said Gayle Ottmann, longtime manager of the center, which also included a small gift shop, the profits of which contributed to its upkeep. “We were allowed to sell Vermont products as long as they didn’t compete with any of the businesses in downtown White River Junction. It was great if we made money, but all we wanted to do was break even.”

People who were arriving in Vermont by train had friendly faces to greet them and provide information about the area, something Ottmann said will be missing now that the center has closed.

“I am absolutely convinced that one of the reasons people come to Vermont is the one-on-one interaction they get,” Ottmann said. “It was just very unfortunate for those of us who worked there and put in the time there to have it gone.”

The welcome center, downtown for 20 years, was part of a statewide initiative to get visitors off the interstates and into downtown, said David Briggs, owner of the Hotel Coolidge in downtown White River Junction. A similar welcome center is in downtown Montpelier.

“The more people you have coming into your district the better off all the business owners are going to do, especially something as thoughtful as what goes on in a welcome center,” he said. “I think it’s a big disappointment. If it was good for all those years why wouldn’t it be good now?”

Of the 17 visitor centers the state operates or funds, the White River Junction site is the second least-visited, Fitch said. In the last fiscal year — which included the time period all sites were shuttered due to the COVID-19 pandemic — 19,200 people stopped by, compared to 22,200 the year prior.

“Statewide on average we see about 3.2 million visitors a year at all of our 17 (information centers),” Fitch said. The center in downtown White River Junction accounted for 0.6% of that traffic.

The state reopened eight of the centers in July, including ones near the Interstate 91 interchange in Hartford and Interstate 89 in Sharon.

“We chose these centers because it represents 76% of the visitor traffic in 2019,” Fitch said. “We also looked at information centers for their location and also their size.”

The square footage of each center was also taken into consideration.

“Some of these centers are so small it’s difficult to maintain physical distancing inside,” Fitch said.

It is not yet clear what will happen with the White River Junction welcome center space once Amtrak services resume.

“The only way to get it back would be if the business people ... feel that it is important that there is that link to visitors and the business community,” Ottmann said. “I don’t believe it will ever open again.”

The Lebanon Area Chamber of Commerce ran an information booth in Colburn Park in downtown Lebanon for decades, but it was shuttered in 2018 as more people relied on smartphones and the web for information.

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.

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