A New Visitor's Center for Wilmington?
Our blog of May 14, titled "A Visitor Information Center Worthy of Wilmington" drew a gentle rebuke from reader Jill Gerard. “The visitor’s center is terrible... Visit almost any other… For pity’s sake”. I must say in an era of four letter words, “for pity’s sake,” warmed my heart. Thank you, Jill Gerard.
I wrote back saying I agreed with her. (We should) “Fix this, then do a real Visitor Center.” We do have a Wilmington and Beaches Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) in the Coastline Convention Center, but not many people go there. The Information Center is too locked into a small physical space to avoid completely removing it and building a multi-story replacement with the challenge of harmonizing it with the historic downtown and preserving a low profile for visibility to the River. An estimate of an Upgrade/ Replacement Cost about four years ago was $1.7M, surely well above $2M today and not budgeted. Meanwhile, years would go by with inadequate tourist services while that happened, unless an excellent substitute could be provided while that work goes forward.
What should a Visitor Center offer as we plan for years 2020-30?
•Tourist Information. To be clear, our CVB provides a comprehensive 442 page online
encyclopedia of regional information, and brochures on request. Much trip planning is now done online in advance of actual visits, but as we pointed out in the aforementioned blog, in person contact and friendly suggestion can extend visits and increase revenue, with advantages to the region, city and merchants.
Thus, every visitor to the Visitor Center needs to leave with the online equivalent to those TripTiks we got from AAA years ago. Match up the visitor interest profile (e.g. golf, history, parks, beaches, hotels, restaurants,) and load their Smartphones with so much information that visitors do more fun things, stay longer, come back sooner. GPS links will pop up to make travel as efficient as possible, avoiding our worst congestion, where possible. It would not be unreasonable to offer an optional customized itinerary— partially computer generated, part friendly advice for a small fee that covers the cost.
•Getting Cars off the Road? The ideal Visitor Center would be surrounded by parking, lots of it, and connected directly to all kinds of multi-modal transportation. Mayor Saffo recently renewed his call for a Visitor Center on one of the several properties the City cleverly took interim ownership of, on the right (west) side of Third Street as one approaches town from MLK.
Some years back, we were big advocates for this, but the economics have become marginal if not absolutely prohibitive. We have space for big parking garages, but at $20,000 per space, how many spaces will be built on expensive downtown sites? Parking requires long term financing, and consensus is that parking demands will decline in the future as shared ownership of cars and alternative transportation develop (see bus and remote parking combination example in our May 7th blog).
Repeating one key point, if the city can buy a 23 passenger electric shuttle for the approximate price of one parking space, why would they not solve much of the problem with shuttles everywhere practicable, and inexpensive remote parking? We could find a concierge parking contractor for moving cars from downtown to remote parking and back, operating with hotels and other visitor destinations.
•Visitor Center as Economic Development Showcase? We’ve also blogged about the need for an Economic Development Showcase. Having a display of our leading
innovative products and services, promoting our largest businesses, hospital and university would be of interest to visitors and especially those we would like to move their businesses and provide great job opportunities here. Having an Economic Development station with a volunteer or Intern on hand would be an added value to our future.
•Wilmington History as a Revenue Source. We have so many publications, film and arts that distinguish the history of this old Port City. A wonderful bank of resources to sell and put on display to visitors. Our entire film library is of interest to so many visitors, and could be accessed for a fee at age appropriate kiosks that could appeal to history/movie buffs or to bored teens while parents shop or tour.
•Entertainment Previews and Talent Showcase. Musicians could entertain as part of the appeal of the Center. With the enormous performing arts talent bank Wilmington has, many artists would enjoy the showcase, name recognition, contributions, and booking opportunities or previews the space could offer.
•Dual Purpose as a Community Center. We see local involvement by citizenry as a positive. Many tourist oriented Visitor Centers are underutilized, cold places, especially after business hours. People and activity at the Visitor Center would emphasize the increasingly dynamic environment that Wilmington is becoming.
Bailey’s Theatre—an Ideal New Generation Visitor Center Location
Located at Front Street and Market, directly in front of the Market Street Parking Deck. The developer is likely to build a sizable multi-story structure. It would be a bold vision to preserve the Bailey’s Theatre remnants and combine the appeal and attraction of these features in a world class first floor Visitor Center. The developer would receive the necessary economic return from other building tenants who will like the action and public visibility a new full service Bailey’s Visitor Center would provide.