BENNINGTON -- Welcome to Vermont. The Green Mountain State just became more visitor-friendly, after the long-awaited new welcome center opened its doors Friday morning.
More than 200 people visited within the first several hours, reading local business pamphlets, admiring the view and accessing free WiFi and coffee.
Located at the junction of Routes 7 and 279, the building is open daily from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. and is designed to show off the Vermont landscape, showcasing the Bennington Battle Monument from its large windows.
"This center will allow us to show people the rich cultural history and wonderful destinations we have available, not just in the state but also in the greater Bennington area," said Edward von Turkovich, director of government business services in Vermont, with offices in Montpelier.
In partnership with the state, the welcome center will be run by nine employees of the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce, rather than by state employees.
"One of the things that attracted me when I moved here was the beauty of the area, unobstructed by billboards," said von Turkovich, originally from Illinois. "But what we're doing now is giving folks the opportunity to see those billboards here, and get an idea of what we have to offer." Advertisements on display more resemble striking photography than distracting highway billboards, and are arranged over a wide variety of pamphlets promoting local restaurants and attractions.
A work in progress, the overall vision for the future of the center includes a full wall dedicated as an art gallery that will eventually hang works by local artists, and a safe space for children to play in the yard with Adirondack chairs for their parents.
"We're not here to sell anything, we're here to facilitate the direction of visitors to our area toward some of the great things we have available here," said Joann Erenhouse, executive director and secretary of the chamber of commerce and one of nine chamber staff trained to provide guest services at the center.
Local businesses are welcome to sign up for a turn to arrange their products or historical items in one of the large glass display cases.
Part of the Bennington Bypass system, which connects the Bennington area with the eastern New York State border, the project has been underway for the past five years.
A fire in March, ignited by space heaters during construction, delayed the original opening by several months.
"The last time I drove past here this place was on fire," remarked Dave Langsett, who visited the center on opening day by coincidence.
"We didn't expect it to be open today. I just wished it would be and then we saw the signs, it looks great," said Stephanie Trujillo.
New to Vermont, Langsett and Trujillo recently relocated to Rutland from New Jersey, and stopped in for a break on their way to a concert in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
"This is such an important location, right here we're so close to travelers coming from New York, from Massachusetts, from the northern part of the state -- it's just fantastic," said von Turkovich.
The first tour bus to visit the center made the stop unscheduled, heading into Vermont with a group of people from southern Indiana and Kentucky.
"Several people have already asked me personally how they can get to the monument from here," said Frank Nolin, a chamber member and welcome center host. "I told them ‘it's not as hard as it looks,' but we're going to be making maps for the future."
An official ribbon cutting is being planned for November.
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