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We’re Open: Benn Marr staffs the desk at the newly re-opened Welcome center on I-95 in Westbrook. (Photo by Aviva Luria/Harbor News | Buy This Photo)
Closed since 2016, the Welcome center in Westbrook is once again offering information and restrooms to travelers on I-95. (Photo by Aviva Luria/Harbor News | Buy This Photo)
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On an afternoon in late August, one of the double doors of the compact Westbrook Welcome Center was propped open; a faded “Open” sign was taped to the other. Inside and to the left, a young man, Sam Marr, could be seen through the glass, reading a brochure behind a semi-circular counter. The words “Visitor Information Center” adorned a bright red sign above the windows, and the open door beckoned.
It’s a familiar scene to anyone who’s traveled around the country by car, but the facilities had only recently been opened, Marr newly hired, and the racks built onto the front of the desk freshly restocked with materials.
In 2016, hours at all six Connecticut highway welcome centers were severely reduced and the Westbrook center was closed. In 2018, funding to staff the centers was eliminated entirely from the state budget. After the November 2018 election, Governor Ned Lamont’s transition Arts, Culture, and Tourism Policy Committee made recommendations that included opening the six welcome centers in order “to declare Connecticut is open for business to travelers.”
While the efforts on the Department of Tourism, which falls under the state’s Department of Economic and Community Development, took longer than some would have liked, the six welcome centers finally opened this August. The Westbrook office, located just past Exit 65 on northbound I-95, was the last of the six to unlock its doors.
On the other side of the Westbrook building are public restrooms. There’s no accompanying gas station or restaurants, but Alicia Delvalle, a custodial worker, said that vending machines were on their way.
Traffic so far has been brisk.
“A lot of people are coming from New York to go to the Rhode Island beaches,” Marr said.
Buses will stop at the Welcome Center on weekends and 70 to 90 people will get off, added Delvalle.
“It’s cool to see people wandering around” perusing and collecting the tourism materials, said Marr. “It’s like a nostalgic thing. A lot of people are excited about the brochures.”
Visitors tell Marr, “I’m glad you’re open again and I hope you’re open for a long time,” he said. “Everybody’s happy.”
State Representative Devin Carney (R-23) was among lawmakers who advocated for the re-opening of the centers, particularly the one in Westbrook, which is located in his district. In January, he introduced a bill, HB 06179, to “remove an impediment to state tourism by reopening the state’s visitor welcome centers,” which was referred to the Joint Committee on Appropriations. The committee held hearings, but ultimately did not pass the bill to the House for a vote.
Among the testimony to the Appropriations Committee, Witan Intelligence, an Avon-based marketing research agency, claimed that the $26 million cut from the state tourism budget ultimately cost $136 million in lost tax revenue, as well as 14,000 jobs statewide.
Carney pursued other ways of re-opening the Westbrook Center.
“I had conversation with the governor and the governor’s staff,” he said. “I think it’s important—it made it look like Connecticut was closed for business.”
The shuttered Westbrook center was “an eyesore,” he said. “It really needed to change.”
The centers will be open year-round, but only staffed for six months of the year.
“This group of staff will be in there until December,” said Randy Fiveash, the state’s Director of Tourism. “Then after that we’ll have like we always do—a short lapse during the winter and staff in there in the spring.”
Until then, the Westbrook Welcome Center will be staffed from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day.
“If we can help [tourists] be happier getting to their destination, it’s a pleasure for us,” Marr said.
The 2020 guide to the Madison Chamber of Commerce has arrived!