The welcome center off Interstate 985 may soon be no more.
The Lake Lanier Convention and Visitors Bureau will part from the single-wide trailer just north of Flowery Branch to move into a vacant office in the courthouse annex, which houses Hall County’s administrative offices.
High overhead costs and low traffic have caused the CVB to reorganize, said its president Stacey Dickson.
This is the second move of the year for the CVB, which left the old city hall building in the fall following a split with the city of Gainesville.
The move was always meant to be temporary, but Dickson said the organization had hoped to have a new facility sooner.
“It’s pretty expensive to operate this facility because it was not made to be a permanent facility. Things like utilities are very high,” Dickson said. “We just consolidated everyone.”
The CVB is scheduled to get a new building, which will be funded by $1.5 million from sales tax collections through Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax VI.
A location has not yet been finalized, but Dickson said they are tentatively looking at property off exit 16 on I-985.
Unfortunately, with the welcome center goes its longtime manager, Robert Croy.
Dickson said his layoff was part of cost-saving measures.
“We’re sick about it,” Dickson said. “But without a welcome center we won’t need a welcome center manager.”
The CVB has decided to put an emphasis on group travel rather than individual, or leisure, travelers, Dickson said.
“We’ve decided the best thing to do would be to suspend our visitor services for the time being and focus on our sales efforts so that we could help have the highest impact possible on the increase in the collection of sales and motel taxes,” Dickson said. “We wouldn’t be able to do that kind of work if we were manning the visitor center seven days a week.”
Employees now will be out making sales calls and talking to meeting planners, group tour operators, sporting event coordinators and others to promote Hall County.
“It requires sales effort, time to go out make sales calls and to bring larger groups into the county that spend more money and spend multiple days versus hoping we’re going to convert someone passing by on 985 into an overnight (stay),” Dickson said.
The shift in focus is also a result of changes in the tourism industry as a whole.
As more people have GPS units in their cars and Internet on their cell phones, fewer people need places like welcome centers to pick up paper maps and ask questions, Dickson said.
“The attitude of travelers has completely changed,” he said. “People just aren’t stopping at the center like they used to.”
The CVB is studying ways to put more focus on technology at the new facility.
Though the office in the courthouse annex also will be a temporary location, the CVB staff likely will call it home for longer than they’d like.
“The tax collections have not been what any of us had hoped they would be,” Dickson said.
Assistant Hall County Administrator Phil Sutton said sales tax collections have dropped about 12 percent from 2008 levels.
Typically, he said, collections grow at a rate of about 7 percent per year.
“They’re significantly off,” Sutton said. “But we expect once the economy gets cranked up again, it’ll return.”
SPLOST VI was approved in March of 2009. The 1-cent sales tax will run for six years.
Sutton said the county is in the process of prioritizing projects based on tax collections. The welcome center likely will be funded in the middle or end of the six-year period.
“We’re continuously adjusting the schedule,” Sutton said.
Despite the many moves, Dickson said the organization is learning to adapt and keep its eyes on the bigger goal.
“We sort of do what we need to do and roll with the punches,” Dickson said. “The end will justify the means. We’ll be much better prepared to serve the traveling public when our inventory is greater and collections are higher to support the operation of the center.”