City to take over Welcome Center

Published 5:53 pm Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Chamber of Commerce agreed to relinquish control over the Welcome Center Wednesday during a monthly board meeting, meaning that the center’s manager—Adrienne Betts Harrison—and two other of its employees, will become city employees May 1.

“The city would take control of the Welcome Center, and it would get the chamber out of the welcome center business,” said Matt Palmer, chairman of the Bainbridge-Decatur County Chamber of Commerce. “It’s a godsend.”

City Manager Chris Hobby, who was also at the board meeting Wednesday, said Harrison will continue to manage the center as well as continue the duties of the city’s communications director. The latter position will become vacant in mid-April with the resignation of Paige Robinson, who is moving out-of-town.

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“The timing was right,” Hobby said of the shift of Harrison into Robinson’s position and to relieve the chamber of the Welcome Center’s operating expenses. “This is a good way to handle this.”

A motion to relinquish control of the center passed unanimously.

The Welcome Center officially opened its doors in April 2003, with Gov. Sonny Perdue saying the facility at the intersection of U.S. Highways 27 and 84 was an “inviting facility,” and it would serve as the area’s “front door for people as Highway 27 moves toward completion along the western side of our state and takes traffic off I-75,”

However, since September 2003, the state’s share of funding for the center has been in question, in jeopardy and now finally not there at all.

The building was built with a $1.5 million grant, and former Gov. Roy Barnes had committed $125,000 per year for three years for operating expenses. The actual construction cost was $938,700. However, when Perdue defeated Barnes, the annual commitment was void and Perdue initially cut $10,000 and then reduced it further. Since then, the center’s operating budget has primarily came from a trust fund set up from money left over from the construction of the building. Perdue cut the last of the state funding for the Welcome Center with a line-item budget veto in 2009.

That trust fund has approximately $300,000, and the chamber was eating away at it in order to keep the center open. But Hobby said by the city taking over the center, that trust fund should be stretched to the point that the center’s partial funding from it would last longer, perhaps four years.

As Hobby estimates, half of the salaries will be from the city, a quarter from the trust fund and a quarter from the Convention and Visitor Bureau, which is funded from a 2 percent hotel and motel tax. Money from that tax must only be used solely for tourism promotion. But Hobby said the city has numerous opportunities for tourism promotion, from bass tournaments, softball and baseball tournaments, and River Town Days.

The center’s operating expenses run about $100,000 a year. Last year, the operating hours of the center was cut, being open Tuesday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Last year, the center recorded 10,411 visitors, which was the most since 2004. Those visitors range from newcomers to snow birds to travelers passing through.

Besides Harrison, the center employs part time Virginia Wooten and Jill Scott.

Harrison was named the manager of the center in 2008. Prior to that, she was the marketing manager of the Colquitt/Miller Arts Council. Harrison is a 2003 graduate of Bainbridge High School, and she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Communication and Information Sciences in 2006 from the University of Alabama.