The Haywood County Tourism Development Authority board voted unanimously last week to relocate the visitor center to Maggie after a five-year run on Main Street in downtown Waynesville. The tourism agency has been on the prowl for a new visitor center location for nearly 18 months.
The new location in Maggie meets all the criteria the tourism agency wanted — not only more office space for staff and cheaper rent, but also highway visibility, easy access and ample parking.
“It has been an absolute nightmare for us to find all those components in a location,” said Lyndon Lowe, chair of the tourism board. “It was quite a challenge.”
The move isn’t without downsides, however. For starters, the tourism agency is giving up the vibe of downtown Waynesville, which is one of the single biggest tourist draws in the county.
The interplay between downtown and the tourism agency has been symbiotic. The tourism agency gets front-row access to downtown’s foot traffic — a captive audience to convert into loyal repeat visitors by wowing them with all there is to do in Haywood County.
“It is unbelievable how many people walk through that door,” said Buffy Phillips, director of the Downtown Waynesville Association. “After all of our events and festivals, I go in and ask ‘How many people came through?’ It has been such a convenience to be able to send visitors in. I will certainly miss them and I know that the merchants will also miss them.”
From Maggie Valley’s perspective, the move is great news, however.
“This is pretty exciting for us,” said Mike Eveland, a Maggie alderman and restaurant operator.
The downtown Waynesville visitor center greeted 25,000 walk-in customers last year. Meanwhile, a second visitor center in Maggie Valley saw only 7,300 walk-ins last year.
“That’s 25,000 sets of eyes. Maggie Valley only had 7,300,” said Mike Graham, the owner of Juke Box Junction diner in Bethel.
Visitor count was so low at the Maggie visitor center the tourism agency shut it down at the end of the year.
But those low numbers won’t necessarily hold true for the new Maggie location, Eveland said. The lackluster volume at Maggie’s visitor center was largely a product of its low visibility in a strip mall.
“I think you will see the visitor count for the new location come in higher than the locations we have had in Maggie in the past,” Eveland said.
How well the new location in Maggie will do compared to downtown Waynesville is hard to predict, said Lynn Collins, executive director of the tourism agency.
“I think that is one of the unknowns,” Collins said.
A long-term commitment
Several board members felt it was a mistake to sign a 10-year lease on the Maggie location and lobbied to shorten it during discussion at a tourism board meeting last week.
“The way we promote tourism in Haywood County is changing dramatically right now,” said Ken Howle, a tourism board member who’s with Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center. “We are making a decision today that potentially hinders the future leaders of this organization for the next 10 years.”
Lowe countered that they could sublet the building to another party if they wanted out.
“That is our only out, for 10 years?” asked Laura Leatherwood, a tourism board member with Haywood Community College. “That’s a long time.”
An escape plan based on subletting the building is inherently risky, since the tourism agency would still be on the hook for monthly rent.
Even those who liked the location were hesitant about the long lease period.
“It has some great perks that are high on our list,” said Beth Brown, a tourism board member from Maggie. But, “It’s a huge commitment. A lot could happen in 10 years.”
Leatherwood said such a long lease would kill any hope of coming together with other tourism, business and economic development groups under one roof, allowing them to tag-team and collaborate more effectively.
“I have not abandoned the idea of a countywide effort with economic development, the chamber and the TDA. If we sign a 10-year lease that’s out the window,” Leatherwood said.
Lowe questioned holding out for something that’s just a concept, however.
“Right now we don’t have anything concrete that looks like that will happen,” Lowe said.
“I understand that now, but in 10 years?” Leatherwood said.
Lowe said they were getting a better deal by agreeing to a 10-year lease. The monthly rent would be higher if they did a shorter lease. And the longer lease offers stability.
“We are getting a very low rate for 10 years,” Lowe said. “At the same time, we will have fixed costs for 10 years and it is a fixed location for 10 years, which we haven’t had for a long time.”
In the end, the tourism board unanimously approved a 10-year lease for the Maggie location.
The biggest downsides of the downtown Waynesville location were lack of parking, higher rent and not enough office space.
The visitor center doubles as offices for tourism agency staff — a half dozen employees who do everything from courting convention travelers to selling Haywood’s image on social media, as well as the meat-and-potatoes business function of managing a $1 million marketing and promotions budget.
But the open floor plan — with nothing but cubicle partitions separating staff from the walk-in visitors — didn’t make for a conducive work environment.
A task force of tourism board members ultimately looked at more than 40 different sites over the past year.
While four of the five task force members are from Maggie, the task force didn’t limit its search to Maggie, nor intentionally set out to chose Maggie over Waynesville, according to Lynn Collins, executive director of the tourism authority.
“We looked everywhere. To be honest, there is a shortage of move-in ready office space,” Collins said.
The task force continued to come up empty, and it seemed they had no choice but to renew their lease in downtown Waynesville for a while longer when it came up at the end of April.
“We were really getting nervous,” Lowe said.
A couple weeks ago, however, the task force learned the building formerly occupied by Organic Beans Coffee Shop had become available.
While it doesn’t have the draw of downtown Waynesville, it’s strategically located en route to Cherokee, a hop-and-skip from the Blue Ridge Parkway, and an easy detour off Interstate 40. It’s got the potential to attract conference-goers from nearby Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center or elk viewers coming to Cataloochee Valley.
“That location certainly has great visibility,” Collins said. “It will be easy to direct traffic from there.”
It’s also going to be easier to get to — primarily because of ample parking — for tourists specifically seeking out visitor center services for help deciding what to do during their stay.
“It gives us the opportunity to make that location a destination in and of itself,” Collins said.
The rent is only slightly cheaper — $800 less a month and $10,000 less a year, although the Main Street location had a 3 percent built-in rent increase each year.
The search for a visitor center has taken several turns.
Early on, tourism leaders were poised to throw in the towel on visitor centers and replace them with digital kiosks. But they concluded visitor centers were not passé yet and still worth the investment.
At one juncture, the tourism agency was ready to stay downtown and move in with a suite of groups working toward tourism, business and economic development growth — namely the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce, Economic Development Commission and Downtown Waynesville Association.
A plan was crafted to house them all in Waynesville’s old town hall, which is mostly empty anyway.
But pushback from a couple Waynesville aldermen scuttled it, and the tourism agency went back to the drawing board.
The tourism agency had been operating two visitor centers until recently — the primary one in downtown Waynesville and a secondary one in a strip mall in Maggie.
The consolidation completes an evolution of the visitor center landscape in Haywood County that has been playing out for the past five years.
Historically, the county had four visitor centers: in Waynesville, Maggie Valley, Canton and Balsam. The tourism agency provided annual funding and support for all four.
But five years ago, the tourism agency began consolidating the visitor centers and bringing them in-house — run by the tourism agency’s own staff rather than subsidizing the smorgasbord of visitor centers in each town.
Meanwhile, the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce will continue to keep its visitor center open in downtown Waynesville, filling the void left by the tourism agency pulling out of downtown.