BENNINGTON — The new maps and brochures, still smelling of ink, have been neatly stacked in the wooden display racks. The vending machines have been refilled. The building has been given a deep clean, and artwork from the Bennington Shutterbugs photography club has been hung on the walls.
All that’s needed to complete the picture at the James M. Jeffords Welcome Center here are the visitors — and as vaccination levels rise and the public’s confidence in traveling increases, they’ve begun making their way back.
“The nicest part about being open again is having the people return. Seeing our regulars, who travel through here a lot, and also being able to talk to the people and give them information and directions,” said PJ DeVito, the supervisor of the welcome center.
Since last July, the center has been open on a limited basis, with shortened hours and few amenities. The few people who traveled during the height of the pandemic could get a bottle of water, courtesy of the state, or use the restrooms, but they were discouraged from lingering, in line with COVID-19 protocols. Visitor counts, as high as 1,000 a day during a normal foliage season, plummeted to about 100.
The center resumed full operations on the day after Memorial Day, returning to full amenities and a 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. schedule. The center’s 10 workers, all of whom are employed by the Southwestern Vermont Chamber of Commerce, have returned to their regular schedules, too.
The pandemic is not yet over, and there are still some COVID measures in place — unvaccinated visitors are asked to wear face masks, and thorough cleaning continues — but otherwise, things are very much back to normal.
DeVito estimates that travel began picking up about two weeks before Memorial Day, a reflection of rising vaccination rates. With the state on the threshold of an 80-percent vaccination rate that will bring the lifting of all remaining COVID restrictions, she expects that the tap will open even wider soon.
For both the visitors and the staff, it’s a happy reunion after a year of isolation.
“I’s so great to see some of the people that we haven’t seen in the year and a half!” she said. “We have a couple that comes through all the time, and they usually pick up their granddaughter and she spends a week with them here and there, and they hadn’t seen her in a long time. They came through the other day, and they were on their way to see their granddaughter.”
That level of familiarity with their regular visitors is not unusual, she added. “We definitely know their families and, you know, always ask how the families are doing.... people would be amazed. I would invite anyone from Bennington to come up here and spend some time with us. It’s a great job.”
The welcome center was opened in 2013 on Route 279, commonly known as the Bennington Bypass. It’s one of 17 across the Green Mountain State, and one of only two to be staffed by a local chamber of commerce; the other is the Lake Champlain center.
“I think it gives Vermont a really good face,” DeVito said. “Visitors come into the center talking always about the ‘Vermont mystique.’ And when they come across the border, just feels different.”
Not so long ago, visitors regarded New Englanders as “very standoffish — now they talk about how friendly they are, and how knowledgeable our the staff is,” she said. Like all welcome center employees, the staff is tested every year on facts about the state, to make sure that they can correctly answer questions from travelers, no matter what region they’re bound for. “We’re all certified Vermont ambassadors,” she said.
The welcome center has a mission of promoting local businesses, too. Local companies are invited to display their products, free of charge, in one of two large glass display cases, and can have brochures placed in the racks free of charge.
“Since the bypass, we always ask them if they have been down into Bennington, and mentioned the highlights of Bennington and the downtown and old Bennington and what there is to see before we let people get out the door,” DeVito said.