COLUMBIA — Concerned that South Carolina's tourism agency may have to close or reduce operations at its welcome centers because of state budget cuts, one local visitors bureau and its member hotels picked up the funding slack.
A year later, with its budget in even worse shape, the state Parks, Recreation and Tourism Department is hoping others will do the same and help fund the $1.9 million cost of operating nine welcome centers that tourism marketers consider key sales points for their business.
"We spend a lot of money trying to get people to consider coming to South Carolina," said Helen Hill, executive director of the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. "The visitors centers, that's where the rubber meets the road: They're here."
Last year, Hill's group adopted the state's only welcome center located in central South Carolina — near the intersection of Interstates 95 and 26. The nearly $200,000 came from special donations from the group's hotel members.
"I think it's a testament to how strongly we feel about its importance as a marketing tool," Hill said.
Georgia's tourism agency has used a similar tactic to keep some of its 11 centers open and staffed during tough budget times, said Alison Tyrer, spokeswoman for Georgia Economic Development Department.
Local tourism agencies provided funding to keep open two of the state's centers.
"They understood the value of keeping them open and took steps to make that happen," Tyrer said. Still, one Georgia center has been reduced to operating five days a week instead of seven.
In South Carolina, the money paid by the Charleston visitors bureau was used to put all the state's welcome centers back on a seven-day-a-week schedule instead of the five days they were operating because of the budget cuts.
Hill said her group spent some money — less than $10,000 — to spruce the place up a bit with more recent photograph and posters on the walls and other cosmetic changes.
The center operates as the fifth Charleston Visitors Center, but with the same staffers who continue to be state employees. Charleston locations are spotlighted at the facility, but travelers can find information about other areas of the state. Hill said her group wants to continue the arrangement and is considering teaming up with other groups to take over the center on I-95 at the southern entrance to the state near Hardeeville.
The state tourism department has sent letters to other nonprofits asking them to make proposals for similar arrangements at the other centers along highways near the state line.
"There are things that will need to be done to balance the budget," department spokesman Marion Edmonds said. "This is new territory. It's a new way of thinking about it."
The land and the buildings where the centers are located are owned by the state Transportation Department and certain restrictions apply to what kind of activity can be in the centers that sit in federal highway rights-of-way. The groups could not operate gift shops or restaurants in the buildings, for example.
The centers recorded more than 2 million visits last year with the Hardeeville stop accounting for nearly a quarter of those. The staff at that one location helped travelers make more than 6,000 reservations last year, most of them in the Lowcountry and resort islands.
The tourism department estimates that based on an average room rate of $84 a night, the Hardeeville welcome center had an economic impact of $525,000. The cost to run the Hardeeville center is $223,000 — almost all of that is employee salaries.
"It's not an expense, it's an investment," said Tripp Hayes, director of sales and marketing at the Mills House Hotel in Charleston.
Hayes spends a few hundred dollars visiting welcome centers twice a year with discounts and new material on his hotel and to talk with staffers who make lodging recommendations to travelers. In return, he said, the Mills House gets about $30,000 in reservations from the centers each year.
Hayes said he is glad local groups can step in during this time of need, but thinks ultimately, the state should run the outposts.
"I think it's sad that the state is in this situation," Hayes said. "But I do believe that if we can come in and help keep them open, it is a couple-year bridge, not a permanent solution."
The department hopes to have contracts in place by August and to turn over operation of the centers to organizations by September 1. Groups have until July 30 to get their proposals to the agency. In his letter to interested groups, agency director Chad Prosser encouraged organizations to coordinate their proposals with other groups and split the costs.