S.C. welcome centers await new operators

Area travel and tourism groups likely will miss a state deadline for proposals to operate the South Carolina Welcome Center on Interstate 77 in Fort Mill Township.

The state wants proposals by the end of the month to operate the nine S.C. welcome centers. State tourism budget cuts are forcing the state to look to nonprofits for help. State officials hope to turn over operations by September.

Rock Hill/York County Convention and Visitors Bureau officials say they are in the preliminary stages of evaluating the idea.

The Olde English District Tourism Commission is "not sure we can do anything at this point," said Executive Director Jayne Scarborough. Seven counties along I-77 - including Chester, Lancaster and York - are represented on the commission.

Partners in Tourism, a group of hotel, restaurant and attraction operators in York County, won't meet until August.

These groups face tight budgets themselves and do not have money to allocate to the welcome center without changing priorities or raising additional funds.

No one wants drastic cuts at the welcome centers, as they are the state's chance to make a first impression on motorists coming to South Carolina or just passing through.

"The ladies at the center are our ambassadors for the area," said Jody Taylor, president of Partners in Tourism for York County and director of marketing and operations at NarroWay Productions. "There would be a major upset if they closed."

NarroWay Productions has offered volunteers to the Welcome Center, located just south of Carowinds, but doesn't have any money to contribute, Taylor said.

The "welcome factor" affects tourism and can have other effects, said Rob Youngblood, executive director of the York County Regional Chamber of Commerce. Decisions to relocate a business or move a family can be affected by the reception people receive at a welcome center, Youngblood said.

The S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism modeled its request for aid on the financial help the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau gave the department last year. The Charleston group donated $200,000 - raised primarily from hotel owners - to help keep a Charleston-area welcome center open.

The Fort Mill center's budget is $200,000 with 81 percent of the money paying for personnel. The center serves more than 420,000 visitors annually.

The building and rest stop are operated by the state's Department of Transportation.

Restroom hours will not be affected by the tourism budget woes, said DOT spokesman Pete Poore.