Area needs to lobby for state welcome center

With every crisis imaginable happening to Walker County in the past few weeks, it has been hard to get to the point of revisiting the matter of a state welcome center. You will recall Jess Drummond, a marketing manager for Fontaine, asked Gov. Kay Ivey during her forum at the Jasper Civic Center about getting a state welcome center for U.S. Interstate 22. “Do you think maybe you could look into that? That would be a great way to showcase northwest Alabama,” he said. Ivey replied, “Thank you very much for bringing that up. That is a real good idea.” I wanted to ask that myself, so I almost jumped out of my chair. The executive director of the Shoals-based Northwest Alabama Council of Local Governments, a regional planning commission, was almost as excited behind me. I button-holed every legislator present to make sure they understood that issue, and everyone was favorable. An Alabama Welcome Center on U.S. Interstate 22 at the state border, less than an hour away, would promote not just the state but area counties. Walker County could get promotion for hotels, restaurants, arts, shopping and tourist attractions, down to giving directions. Winston County also has a potential to get a boost, particularly with the Bankhead National Forest, Natural Bridge and Smith Lake. It would be an incredible economic boost. However, long after Mississippi’s welcome center opened in August 1992 — 25 years ago this month — Alabama was told to wait, supposedly until the road was completed to Birmingham. The center is now picked out for a spot and designs are drawn, but officials have in recent years started talking about how expensive it would be. In other words, I think our legislative delegations in Northwest Alabama will have to push to get this completed. I was finally able, with quite a dig, to find a Sept. 30, 2015, column I wrote in the Journal Record in Marion County after visiting at that time the Itawamba County, Miss., welcome center, which state material boasts as having a Williamsburg design. I went inside and asked the receptionist how many people came through the facility. “About 1,000 a day,” she said, and I nearly fell over. The supervisor of the welcome center, Ann Miller, came out and told me had been one of the top welcome centers in that state, out of more than a dozen. In Fiscal Year 2014, officials recorded 377,602 visited the center, or 12 percent of the 2.5 million who visit that state’s welcome centers. Monthly figures that year ranged from 44,199 in July to 18,954 in February, with six months of the year showing 30,000 or more; all but two months was 28,000 or more, and two months had 40,000 or more. The average was 31,467 a month. Fiscal 2015 showed 370,432, with seven months showing 30,000 or more; 10 months had 25,000 or more, and one month had 40,000. (July was the big month both years, with 40,246 recorded in Fiscal 2015. By the way, Miller could not be reached for updated figures this week.) Miller said most people ask for directions and hotel accommodations, and noted the welcome center can make hotel reservation for visitors. (I used that service once at a Georgia Welcome Center.) In fact, welcome center rates are sometimes available which she said can be better than AARP and AAA rates. As I wrote in 2015, if 377,602 people a year, or 1,000 a day, are stopping at that welcome center while traveling west, it stands to reason a close number of people are also going east. And what about the number of people who don’t stop at a welcome center? At the very least, it is very promising of what could be done in terms of attracting economic development on our interstate. Folks, we have great potential to be helped with a welcome center, ranging from the fishing tournaments, restaurants throughout the area (Bullpen, Green Top, the Jasper Entertainment District), motels all over Jasper, the Foothills Festival and other local festivals, Horse Creek Golf Course, the Coal Mining Museum, the Jasper Mall, high school football, Bevill State Community College athletics and events, the historic First United Methodist Church of Jasper, events and displays at the historic Bankhead House, splash pads and swimming pools (particularly the Natatorium, with its swim meets), the APEX playground for the disabled, car dealerships, the Walker County Airport-Bevill Field, Walker County Lake, kayak activities and events at the Jasper Civic Center.

And the area could feed off itself. Again, we have Bankhead National Forest, Natural Bridge and Smith Lake in Winston County. Marion County has The Ramp ministry, Mule Day, the Jerry Brown Arts Festival, artists such as Missy Miles and the Sam R. Murphy Wildlife Management Area. Oh, and we have a couple of small towns--what was their names? Oh, yeah--Birmingham and Tuscaloosa. They might have a couple of items to promote. We need to lobby out legislators, the Alabama Department of Transportation, Gov. Kay Ivey and others for a state welcome center. The interstate is completed and we should not assume that it will be built. I’ve heard enough hemming and hawing to know it could be dragged out. After all, it is crazy that Mississippi got a state welcome center on their side of the line 25 years ago, a quarter of a century ago, and everyone on this side of the line in Alabama is still waiting. We have lost untold economic benefits because of such a wait, while other interstate entrance points naturally got a welcome center long ago. In other words, Northwest Alabama got the shaft again. It still makes me upset for this region, particularly Walker, Winston and Marion counties. I dare you to tell me about the budget in light of that 25-year timeline and what we failed to get economically by being left behind. I’d like to tell you where you can file that budget, and it doesn’t involve a General Fund committee in Montgomery — although it might be as painful as sitting through one of their meetings. We are long overdue, and we need to make sure that Walker, Winston and Marion counties are not overlooked again.