MONTPELIER -- Members of the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce and other citizens met with Edward B. von Turkovich, director of the Department of Buildings and General Services and Government Business Services, at the Statehouse on Tuesday to discuss Bennington's new Welcome Center.
The facility, which von Turkovich admitted has only been averaging about 150 visitors per day, compared to the 1,000 that had been projected, opened last October, and has faced criticism from many local residents over the cost of the project. The project was funded primarily through a $6.5 million federal earmark secured by former Sen. James Jeffords.
"We wish there were more people going through there, and we think it will happen in time," said von Turkovich, who noted that winter was expected to be the slowest season, and that this summer and fall would likely give a better indication of the success of the project. He also said that knowledge of the Welcome Center would eventually spread over time as people visited and told their friends. The number of visitors to the center is counted by electronic sensors at the door, and is sent to the Agency of Transportation daily.
Joann Erenhouse, executive director of the Bennington Chamber, expressed concern that the signage around the Welcome Center was confusing and leading to people not visiting, as it was unclear which highways they would be able to get back on after leaving. The center can be reached from off-ramps on Route 7 South and Route 279 East and West, and visitors can exit the center and go in every direction. She said that people not familiar with the area may bypass the center, thinking that they won't be able to get to Bennington if they stop there.
While van Turkovich suggested that, while the center wasn't perfect, he had high hopes for it in the coming months. Bennington selectman Michael Keane agreed, joking, "If perfection is a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike, then I think we've done just fine."
The Bennington Welcome Center is one of about 20 in the state, and the chamber employs about seven staff members to operate the facility. "While the building is beautiful, it's not the building that makes the facility successful, it's the staff," said von Turkovich.
Von Turkovich also said that the Bennington Welcome Center, "is going to be the last [center] you'll see built in Vermont for some time."
On the way back to Bennington, the bus carrying the chamber representatives stopped to visit the Welcome Center. The group consisted of about 13 adults and seven children, who were students from the Hiland Hall School. The group was greeted by the Welcome Center staff, one of whom said, "Wow, I've never seen this many people here at once before."
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