BENNINGTON -- The new welcome center's ability to hold a crowd was put to the test Wednesday as more than 100 people, many of them local and state officials, including the governor, crowded together for a ribbon cutting ceremony.
The Bennington Welcome Center opened Oct. 11 in time for Columbus Day weekend. Construction began earlier this year, however a fire in May caused by a propane heater delayed the center's opening by a few months. Many wished to see the center open promptly so tourists traveling over Route 279, the eastern leg of which was completed last year, would be directed into Bennington.
Brenda Jones, president of the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce, said the Bennington facility will be able to showcase much of Vermont to visitors as well as be a "window on Bennington" itself.
"Our fear, and we had a lot of them, for being, quote, ‘bypassed,' has been greatly tempered since the opening of this welcome center," she said, thanking the state officials who secured funding and worked on planning issues, as well as the chamber's staff which will run the welcome center.
Gov. Peter Shumlin said centers like this are need to drive commerce into areas and fuel the economy. He said the state did a wise thing years ago when it banned billboards, and welcome centers act as more effective replacements for those signs.
"This really is about replacing big ugly billboards with creative, artistic, cultural, and commerce centers that drive folks into downtown Bennington and surrounding communities," he said. "We are creating jobs and economic development by driving people into a vital downtown. That's smart use of taxpayer money."
Richard "Rick" Pembroke Jr. read a statement from his father, former House Rep. Richard Pembroke, who credited former Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords with securing a federal earmark for the welcome center.
"When five alternative route were being discussed for the western 279 connector, the New York entry was agreed upon because of safety concerns. We had to figure out how to pay for the portion that was in New York. Why would New Yorkers pay to dump travelers into Vermont? Nor would Vermonters pay to build a road to New York. The thought of a federal earmark came to mind."
It took a few years, but Jeffords was able to secure $6.5 million for the Bennington project.
"This is a case of a collective dream come true," said Sen. Robert Hartwell, D-Bennington. He said a number of local groups and state agencies worked to make the center happen.
Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said he was pleased to be standing in the welcome center in 2013 at the juncture of Route 279's eastern and western legs, given he first heard of the project in 1971.
A number of other guest speakers made remarks during the ceremony. Music was provided by the Mount Anthony Union High School Chamber Singers and the Bennington County Choral Society.
Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @KWhitcombjr.