Georgia's first welcome center escapes budget ax

SYLVANIA, Ga. — Clayton Rose can appreciate the simplicity of the road less traveled.


“Traffic’s too fast on the interstate,” the Dublin, Ohio, retiree said. “We like going the old way.”

For Rose and his wife, Betty, the “old way” includes annual stops at a familiar Georgia landmark that narrowly escaped the state’s budget-cutting ax last month.

Tucked along a lonely, linear stretch of U.S. Highway 301 near the Savannah River, the Georgia Visitor Information Center is the oldest one on the state.

“We stop in most every year, coming down and going back home,” said Rose, who spends winters in Florida and returns to Ohio each spring.

The building, added to the National Register of Historic Places in December, opened its doors a half-century ago, April 20, 1962, said Robert Davis, an information specialist who has worked at the center almost 20 years.

In the decades before interstate highways, U.S. 301 bustled with Northern tourists bound to and from Florida.

“We still get lots of people from up North,” Davis said. “They remember our names from year to year, and we remember their faces.”

The migrating “snowbirds” even inspired one perennial visitor to donate a vintage snowmobile that is displayed just outside the front door.

“It’s to welcome all the people coming through from up North,” said Donna Thorne, who works at the center with Davis. “He brought it all the way down here, and we had to get permission to display it.”

Today, the welcome center looks much like it always has, complete with a picnic area, restrooms and “mid-century modern” architectural features from a design created by Statesboro, Ga., architect Edwin C. Eckles. Inside, the original aluminum chandeliers and terrazzo floors still greet visitors.

“Some of the people who stop here like it because it was a place they came to as a child,” Davis said, adding that clean restrooms and free soft drinks are also a draw.

Craig Counts, of Barnwell, S.C., was one of the visitors this month who took advantage of both.

“I grew up not far from here,” he said. “When we are traveling through here, it’s always a place to stop with the kids.”

Gov. Nathan Deal’s fiscal 2013 budget proposed closing both the historic Screven County welcome center and another small center near Plains, Ga., said Stefanie Paupeck, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Economic Development, which operates the sites.

However, a spokesman in the governor’s office said Thursday the Screven County facility will remain open.

“The visitors center we spoke about earlier is not closing,” spokesman Samuel Johnson said. “Instead, it is facing a 2-percent budget cut.”

The U.S. 301 center is 16 miles from Sylvania and is open Tuesday through Saturday. Officials plan a 50th anniversary celebration on April 20.

Georgia Welcome and Visitor Information Centers:

Georgia Welcome Center

8463 Burton’s Ferry Highway

Sylvania, GA 30467

(912) 829-3331

8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday



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