Matt Harrington: When Vermont reopens, our welcome centers will be ready

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COVID-19, among other things, has closed Vermont to most travelers. Due to that, many of the State Welcome Centers have been asked to close, including Bennington's.

As many know, the Southwestern Vermont Chamber of Commerce has a unique opportunity to manage one of Vermont's State Welcome Centers on Highway 279. We'd like to take a moment to share that history and how we fund that center.

In fall of 2016, the Bennington Welcome Center adopted a new name as the "Senator James Jeffords Welcome Center," named after the late senator. A Rutland native, Jeffords served as Vermont's delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives from 1975 to 1989, then was a U.S. senator until 2007 before passing away in 2014.

He's credited with securing the $6.5 million earmark used to build the Welcome Center at the Route 279 interchange, which opened in October 2013. It took time, but Jeffords was able to secure a federal earmark for the project: The western leg, which connects U.S. 7 in Vermont with New York Route 7, opened to traffic in 2004.

Today, the Welcome Center is a symbol of the welcoming spirit of Vermont. We have a great staff of 8-9 part-time workers who staff the Welcome Center 365 days a year, as well as a terrific full-time manager in PJ DeVito. Two staff people are at the Welcome Center throughout the day. We do this to ensure safety (having a buddy system), as well as a way to offer the best customer care we can provide for our travelers.

At the Welcome Center we are fortunate to have the ability to staff it with our local Chamber employees who are mostly Bennington residents. We see this as a plus, as the local staff is familiar with our area and the vast resources we have to offer both visitors and locals. This staff is knowledgeable about our area attractions, lodging, restaurants and businesses and does their best to send our visitors to downtown Bennington and throughout the region. Their motto up at the Welcome Center is, "See beautiful Bennington before continuing on through the rest of our lovely state."

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Each year the Welcome Center staff take many tests about all aspects of Vermont in order to become official state ambassadors. The staff at the Welcome Center are welcoming, friendly, knowledgeable and hardworking. I dare say that they are some of the friendliest and most genuine people I have ever met. They are invested in our center, our community, and our state and it shows. We are constantly thanked for our spotless facility and I know the staff takes pride in their work.

Because our Chamber of Commerce has contracted with the state to run our center, we have the opportunity of allowing our business and nonprofit members to display their brochures at no cost. All other Vermont attractions and businesses pay a fee to display their information. Our members also receive a discounted rate to advertise their businesses on our posters above our brochure racks.

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There are two display cases which any Vermont business can use to display their wares at the Welcome Center. These cases are free of charge and change monthly. The Welcome Center also has an art wall on which local and Vermont artists can display their work. When talking with PJ DeVito, our manager up at the Welcome Center, she mentions how visitors love the True Patriot horse sculpture, which was constructed by the amazing local artist, Rita Dee.

With over 130,000 visitors this past year (our staff have a tracking procedure to monitor this — these numbers get reported to the state), the importance and partnership we have with the state and its Welcome Center should not be overlooked. We often hear comments regarding the number of visitors using the Welcome Center. One comment is always about how few cars there are in the parking lot, but our staff have a rule: get people in, do what they need to do, provide the right information, get them a free cup of Vermont coffee and then send them on their way to explore the rest of Vermont. The low number of cars in the parking lot signifies how good our staff is at getting people what they want and then on their way!

Recently, we have been asked about the financing of the Welcome Center. We'd like to share that overall yearly budget with the public in transparency and with clarity:

This past year, under a multi-year contract with the state, we received a total of $213,312, which is about $18,000 per month to run the Welcome Center effectively. The breakdown is as follows: salaries and wages comes in at $173,909; health insurance comes in at $12,439; insurance liability comes in at $1,825; workers comp comes in at $317; payroll processing fee comes in at $1,265; payroll tax expense comes in at $13,374; bookkeeping comes in at $6,000; human resource work comes in at $800; retirement comes in at $1,068; office supplies comes in at $1,050; and telephone and internet comes in at $1,000.

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Recently, we were instructed by the State of Vermont to close the Welcome Center until further notice while still continuing to pay the employees as we would normally do based on their average rate of pay per week.

While many of you are already familiar with our involvement in the Visitor Center and its operating budget from the Chamber's annual report to its members, we wanted to take this chance to share some of these numbers with the community so they can better understand what it takes to run a welcome center and how fortunate we are to have one in our backyard!

Our Welcome Center really is a gem to the State of Vermont. We are saddened to have to close it due to the crisis, but we agree that the state's procedure is purely in the interest of health and safety.

The state and this chamber have a good working relationship and we truly feel that this Welcome Center is a great asset to not only Bennington, but to the entire region. We are proud to manage it and we look forward to reopening it as soon as we can to visitors and residents alike!

Matt Harrington is the executive director of the Southwestern Vermont Chamber of Commerce.


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