Welcome center still on hold for area

By Ed Howell
Posted 10/12/17

You recall that I have written about how the state has been dragging its feet on a state welcome center for this area on U.S. Interstate 22, which would be located at the state border in Marion County.

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Welcome center still on hold for area

Posted

You recall that I have written about how the state has been dragging its feet on a state welcome center for this area on U.S. Interstate 22, which would be located at the state border in Marion County.

Well, my old co-worker at the Journal Record in Hamilton, News Editor Tracy Estes, is reporting that the state still indicates there is not enough money to move on the plan anytime soon.

“A welcome center on I-22 in Marion County remains an important goal for us,” state Department of Transportation spokesman John McWilliams told the Journal Record for its Oct. 7 issue. McWilliams works out of the West Central Region.

“However, all current funding is committed to preserving and maintaining our existing transportation network. We are hopeful that additional funding will allow us to move forward on this project in the future.”

The newspaper also noted in a front page story that not only did the Mississippi State Welcome Center mark its 25th anniversary in August, but Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant thought enough of it to attend official ceremonies held at the site.

Then he rubbed salt into the wound. I’m sure he didn’t mean to, but for Alabama he might as well have.

“This is the number one center in the state,” Bryant said during the ceremonies, according to the Journal Record. “More people come to this center than any other in the state.

Mississippi Transportation Commissioner Mike Tagert said at the reception that in the prior month, 41,000 people visited the welcome center. Bryant and Tagert went on to say the welcome center was a vital part of the state’s tourism effort and was critical for making a first impression.

Rights-of-way have been purchased for the Alabama Welcome Center; previous reports say $600,000 was set aside at one time for the purchases, with the funds approved in 2012.

The estimated cost of the project in 2012 was $10 million, up from $9.1 million in 2010. Original plans had called for construction to begin in 2010—seven years ago. Next year will mark the 10th anniversary that preliminary architectural drawings were unveiled. In fact, it was revealed that the facility would be constructed on a. 62-acre site located near Mile Marker 2 on I-22. They planned two fireplaces and a water fall fueled through a recyclable water system. The building had large stone used in the exterior of the building.

And remember state taxpayer—you are paying for what has been done to now, which is all collecting dust.

So why does that matter in Walker County and Winston County? As I have pointed out, we have a number of festivals, hotels, restaurants, attractions, parks and the like to benefit from the extra attention given to this region by a state welcome center. (Think how the Bankhead Forest and the Foothills Festival alone would benefit.) It would be invaluable for this whole region, not to mention the state. All the other major interstate entrances in the state have a state welcome center. Even Cuba in Sumter County has a welcome center.

It burns me up that the state officials come up and say, oh, I-22 is going to be a great help to your economy. You’re going to benefit so much off of it. They talk how development will come and on and on and on it goes.

And yet they won’t spend the $10 million that actually helps get people attracted to the region and the state as they come in on this new interstate. They have given lip service for a quarter of a century, spent taxpayer dollars to look like they are starting the project, and fail to pull the trigger to look like they are saving money. (And some of that was while another governor was having state resources used to fly his girlfriend and get his wallet halfway across the state, not to mention work on a Governor’s Mansion on the beach.)

I’m sorry, but this is one time I can’t be patient and polite. I’ve been patient and polite in waiting for a quarter of a century. My career started 36 years ago, and 25 of those years I’ve been waiting for that welcome center. Our state government department heads ignored it. Our state legislators ignored it. Our governors ignored it.

And when they ignored it, they ignored Northwest Alabama. They ignored Walker, Winston and Marion counties. Just like they ignored or dragged their feet about I-22, or Corridor X as it was called then. And in a way they are still ignoring us.

Well, guess what? Next year, we elect a governor. We elect the Legislature. We’re electing a lot of people on the state and local levels. And people need to ask them about the welcome center and complain. I’m firmly convinced the questions about Corridor X to candidates and office holders finally got the job done. I’m firmly convinced the reason we are talking nationally about opioid addiction now is because voters overwhelmed presidential candidates when they were doing retail campaigning in New Hampshire and surrounding areas early in the 2016 campaign. And they do listen in government when they get phone calls and letters that are written in an original voice (not a form letter sent out by lobbyists).

People have to complain about being given the shaft in Northwest Alabama about their welcome center. They have to complain loud and long. I hope they do, and I hope they ask candidates about it a lot, even local candidates that can complain to state officials. For Mississippi to still give priority and recognition to its best welcome center just across the line, while we ignore the potential revenue we could generate from exposure, should make Alabama officials ashamed to get out of bed in the morning, much less come to work — and much less look you in the eye.

But they are not, because you don’t say anything about it. I can tell you, when the voters voted down the 1-cent sales tax in Walker County, a heck of a lot of things changed. The voters have more power than they realize. I hope they realize they don’t have to take a back seat to Mississippi in generating income that could benefit their local areas and the state, despite the lazy attitude of state officials. If state officials want to whine about lack of funds, why don’t they invest in something easy that will help them?

At least when they spend money on a project in Mississippi, they see it out to the end — and see the results.