Big changes for Visitor Center
By Blake Belden, Staff Writer and Caitlin Davis, Senior Staff Writer
Apr 4, 2014, 09:26
BLAKE BELDEN/HOPEWELL NEWS/NEWS-PATRIOT Hopewell and Prince George will begin sharing the Visitor Center on Oaklawn Boulevard.
HOPEWELL — A plan has been approved that will bring major changes to the Hopewell Visitor Center, a move that some City Council members said has been needed for years.
The move will shift control of the center from the city to the Hopewell-Prince George Chamber of Commerce. The center, located on the southern end of the city, will also now have a mission to promote Prince George. Other major changes include renovations to the existing building as well as using technology to draw tourists.
Hopewell City Council and the Prince George Board of Supervisors have agreed to split the $170,000 cost of improving and operating the center in an effort to bolster regional tourism.
Tourist traffic at the center has consistently been on the decline over the past 10 years, with a drop from 17,373 visitors in 2004 (where the center was open 7 days a week) to 5,377 in 2013 (where the center was open 4.5 days a week), according to information provided by LuAnn Fortenberry, who currently manages the visitor center.
Although the decrease in visitation is substantial, Fortenberry said there were many factors that attributed to the decline including significant decreases in both the Hopewell Office of Tourism’s budget and the visitor center’s advertising budget as well as numerous cuts in available staffing at the center.
Chamber Executive Director Becky McDonough said the Visitor Center goes hand in hand with the mission of the chamber.
“The ... visitor center will have a focus on ringing cash registers and working alongside the city and county in attracting investment,” McDonough said.
The facility will also begin housing the operations of the Chamber of Commerce, McDonough said.
McDonough said that she will manage the start-up activity with the help of chamber volunteer leaders and some assistance from the city, with the Chamber of Commerce’s presence tentatively being seen at the center in July.
Of the $82,200 in start-up costs, $55,000 will be designated for improvements to the facility.
The start-up investments will go towards reconfiguring the work space within the center, adding new signage to the exterior of the building, painting and cleaning the interior, purchasing new furniture and decorations for the facility and technology for video display, according to an online summary created by the Hopewell-Prince George Chamber of Commerce.
Physical changes could help draw more attention to the location. The Hopewell Visitor Center on Oaklawn Boulevard is a nondescript brick building in a sea of asphalt surrounded by strip malls and other businesses.
It’s easy to drive by the building without even noticing it. A small sign sits on the busy stretch of road to direct travelers, and the black words “Visitor Center” appear on the sides of the building, partially obscured by bushes on the right side.
The center currently contains a vast array of brochures that advertise attractions statewide, regional maps, printed out lists of businesses and events laid out on the front counter, and a lounge area with seating and a television for the screening of promotional videos.
Many of the displays in the center will be updated to better advertise the “community spirit” and tourism assets, with a focus on localizing the center’s appeal, rather than acting as a more generic center for statewide endorsement, McDonough said.
Another $27,200 will be used for start-up costs related to technological advancements including website enhancement and purchasing necessary equipment, McDonough said.
McDonough said they plan to build a brand new website, create apps and online technology that will help promote local businesses and amenities
In the modern age, McDonough said that the impacts of a visitor’s center go far beyond that of a physical building that promotes the on-goings of the community, but through the internet as well.
“Nowadays, with everything being social media, and people are looking everything up online, ...the visitor’s center person, the bulk of their job is spent on trying to make that first impression online so that the person is compelled to come in your visitor’s center when they come into the area,” McDonough said.
Right now, the Hopewell Visitor Center has little online presence, with only limited information on the city’s website and no social media presence such as Facebook.
Start-up money will also go toward tourism training programs for employees, special events and marketing advancements.
Following the initial start-up funding, both Hopewell and Prince George will split an annual grant of $92,880 for operating costs, with subsequent grants subject to annual appropriation.
The idea for the changes at the Visitor Center was initiated by the city of Hopewell, McDonough said.
Hopewell council members said that changes have been needed for years.
At a meeting last month, the Hopewell City Council unanimously approved the partnership between localities, with Vice Mayor Jasmine Gore and Councilor Brenda Pelham absent from the vote.
The council also had to approve funds for the new agreement, including $41,100 to be allocated in the budget for start-up costs.
The Hopewell council wants to see that the city is marketed in a much more active way.
Councilor Christina Luman Bailey said that Hopewell has not seemed to “maximize its exposure,” citing the movie ‘Lincoln’ and the National Geographic movie ‘Killing Lincoln’ as failed opportunities.
Hopewell Mayor Mike Bujakowski also echoed those sentiments, noting that the city had not gotten back what has been put into the visitor’s center, where $194,000 was included in last year’s budget for the visitor’s center.
City councilor Jackie Shornak feels that this partnership has been a long time coming.
“It needed to be done years ago,” Shornak said. “I don’t think our visitor’s center has been effective in the way that we want it to be and I think this venture is going to be a great thing, I really do.”
“We do need to regionalize to maximize what we have here. This is kind of a start,” said Hopewell Councilor Wayne Walton. “And let’s try to expand on that and work with our neighbors and try to get some recognition for all of us.”
Bujakowski said that this is a significant increase in savings for the city, which was previously spending nearly $200,000 a year for the visitor’s center.
Fortenberry has been the tourism director for Hopewell for over a decade and will be retiring as a result of this project, McDonough said.
The two part-time employees who currently work for the visitor center will continue to work with the chamber through the new venture, McDonough said.
Prince George County has demonstrated increased interest lately in receiving services from the visitor’s center such as bringing traffic to the Baymont Inn off of Oaklawn Boulevard, or boosting tourism and economic revitalization at Exit 45 off of Interstate 95.
“There was a feeling that if residents are coming to that visitor’s center, and let’s say all those Hopewell hotels are full, wouldn’t it be nice if they could refer out to the Prince George [hotels]?” McDonough said.
Prince George has also made numerous investments recently with the intent of pulling more tourism in the area, including renovations at the Prince George Regional Heritage Center and the purchase of the Buren Property for the purpose of attracting sports leagues, and county leaders thought that a presence at the visitor’s center might attract more people to the area.
The Board of Supervisors also showed unanimous support for the joint effort between localities on Feb. 25, however they demonstrated divided approval of the appropriation of $41,100 in start-up costs through a 3-2 vote, with supervisors Alan Carmichael and Henry Parker dissenting.
Supervisor Carmichael expressed concerns about what actions will be taken to promote both localities equally, given that the visitor’s center is positioned in Hopewell.
Currently, the visitor’s center off of Oaklawn Boulevard is funded solely by Hopewell, with little to no representation of attractions in Prince George County, therefore the goal of this agreement is to bring tourism to Prince George as well as to increase an appeal or attraction for Hopewell.
McDonough said that the Chamber of Commerce is contracted by the city and the county to fulfill this role, therefore if both jurisdictions aren’t represented equally, the Chamber of Commerce risks having the contract terminated.
“We’re going to do everything in our power to represent both of them 100 percent,” McDonough said.