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Haywood tourism agency rolls out new approach for visitor centers

fr moretdaThe Internet and smartphones are turning brick-and-mortar visitor centers into an antiquated resource for travelers and are part of the reason why the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority plans close two of its four visitor centers in the next year.

The tourism authority plans to shut down its Canton and Balsam visitor centers, saving $64,000 a year. The tourism board decided it wasn’t getting its money’s worth and could use those funds more effectively elsewhere, like advertising more online, said Lynn Collins, executive director of the TDA.

“Our numbers that we are spending on visitor centers is high,” Collins said.

Haywood County does have an unusually large number of visitor centers for the region — a total of five. The tourism agency ran three itself and funded two more.

Under the new visitor center strategy, the TDA will run two visitor centers itself, and make a small contribution to a third. The tourism agency will save about $64,000 a year once the changes are implemented.

Closure of the Canton visitor center doesn’t come as a surprise. It was discussed more than a year ago, and was closed on and off over the past year as the county’s tourism agency struggled with funding shortfalls. But, Canton leaders fought for the center to remain because of its prime location right off the highly trafficked Interstate 40.

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A survey showed that most of the Canton center’s visitor were using it as a restroom stop rather than to learn more about Haywood County attractions, however. And, during the past couple years, fewer and fewer people have dropped by the center, posting numbers that simply don’t make it worthwhile to run.

Despite dwindling numbers at the visitor center near I-40, the number of people staying in Canton’s hotels is on the rise.

“Obviously, something is working,” Collins said. “Just not that.”

Most of the board members agreed that the Internet has replaced visitor centers for some travelers. The average traveler peruses websites for area activities and new vacation spots.

The decision to close the center at the Canton exit off I-40 comes less than a year after the tourism agency spent about $10,000 to make it more visible, painting the outside and posting signs, among other upgrades. The center is located in a former car wash, and people felt the appearance of the building was a turn off to visitors. So, the TDA attempted to make it more visually appealing.

Canton will not be devoid of a visitor center, however. The tourism authority will contribute $16,000 to a visitor center in the Canton Area Historical Museum on Park Street to turn it into a fulltime operation.

“There still will be a presence,” said Al Matthews, Canton’s town manager and a TDA board member.


Visitor center shuffle

The closing of the Balsam visitor center comes as more of a surprise. It has consistently seen one of the highest visitation rates of all five visitor centers in the county. It is located at a rest stop off U.S. 23/74. Almost 21,000 people walked through the Balsam location from July 2011 to April 2012.

However, Collins said the majority of those people are simply passing through Haywood County on their way to other destinations.

“It just seems that that center is more of a regional visitor center, which is all well and good, but if we are paying for it, it needs to be benefiting us directly,” Collins said.

Jen Duerr was the only TDA board member who questioned closing the centers, particularly the Balsam site. Duerr said that the location still has potential to attract tourists to various Haywood County shops, restaurants and lodging.

“I think we should be trying to convert those visitors,” said Duerr, who owns the Windover Inn Bed and Breakfast in Waynesville. “I just feel strongly about the parkway since it’s one of the most heavily traveled places.”

Duerr added that the Balsam center was how she and her husband found Waynesville and decided to settle there.


Haywood visitor center shuffle

The Haywood County Tourism Development Authority either operates or funds five visitor centers currently. That will soon change to two and a half.

Along with reducing the number of visitor centers, the TDA is moving away from the historic model of funding visitor centers run by outside entities, namely by chamber of commerce groups. The TDA is opting to take over visitor center operations itself.

Where: Main Street in downtown Waynesville

Who runs it: Haywood County Tourism Development Authority

Number of visitor: 15,009*

The back story: This newcomer on the scene opened last year amid controversy. It is just two blocks from an existing visitor center run by the Haywood Chamber of Commerce, which was historically funded in part by the TDA.

The TDA, which was on the hunt for new office space anyway, decided to locate in the heart of downtown’s tourist trade to capture walk-in traffic and advance its tourism marketing strategy and image for the county.

Its fate: As the TDA’s flagship visitor center, it will see no major changes.

Where: Main Street in downtown Waynesville

Who runs it: Haywood County Chamber of Commerce

Number of visitor: 6,504*

The back story: The Haywood County Chamber of Commerce historically got money to run a visitor center from the county tourism agency. The TDA opened its own visitor center down the street and cut its funding to the chamber, however.

Its fate: The chamber still operates its own visitor center but will lose all its TDA funding in the upcoming fiscal year.

Where: Soco Road in Maggie Valley

Who runs it: Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce

Number of visitor: 11,069*

The back story: The Maggie Chamber has been operating a visitor center for the Maggie Valley area for years and historically has gotten funding from the TDA.

Its fate: The TDA will open its own visitor center in Maggie Valley and will no longer fund the chamber’s center. The chamber’s visitor center will close at the end of this year because it cannot afford to keep it open without money from the TDA.

Where: Great Smoky Mountain Expressway in Balsam

Who runs it: Tourism Development Authority

Number of visitor: 20,945*

The back story: The long-running visitor center receives the most traffic because of the high traffic highway it sits on and because it is adjacent to a N.C. Department of Transportation rest stop.

Its fate: Despite its foot traffic count, the Balsam visitor center will close down. It is seen as a glorified pit stop despite its large numbers.

Where: Off Interstate 40 in Canton

Who runs it: Tourism Development Authority

Number of visitor: 4,095*

The back story: The visitor center opened just five years ago in hopes of capturing traffic from I-40, but has failed to gain traction. It was on the brink of closure last year, but town leaders lobbied for its survival, and the center lived to see another year. However, as visitation and funding dwindles, the site once again ended up on the chopping block this year.

Its fate: The center will close down. However, the TDA will give Canton $16,000 to expand its visitor center in the Canton Area Historical Museum on Park Street.

*Number of visitor as of April 2012

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