Removing the Welcome Mat: Could CT Join RI with Closed Welcome Centers?

A giant-size Mr. Potato Head statue and friendly staff greeted me several years ago at the Rhode Island Welcome Center off Interstate 95 in Richmond.

The statue was one of 47 paying homage to the Pawtucket Hasbro Headquarters.

Today, travellers are greeted with jersey barriers as the 1989 center was abruptly shut down, the latest victim of Rhode Island’s budget woes.

Officials are now encouraging folks to use technology for travel information and patronize gas station restrooms.

Such a new warm welcome might be spreading over to Connecticut’s eight facilities after they were rescued twice from threats of closure this past summer.

Eastern Connecticut has three staffed welcome centers: North Stonington, Westbrook, and West Willington. They have a small exhibit highlighting Connecticut’s ingenuity. The North Stonington facility hosts a full-size reproduction carousel horse.

The state maintains information kiosks in rest areas at East Willington, Middletown, Wallingford, Danbury, and Southington.

They were built in the 1960’s and used by 40,720 travellers daily.

Alongside visitor information, they house restrooms, vending machines, and picnic areas.

On June 3, Governor Dannel Malloy proposed closing these facilities, only four years after the DOT considered building three new welcome centers.

Closing the facilities, according to an e-mail from U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., would have saved the state $1 million in annual operating expenses and a one-time savings of $14 million in capital improvements.

The Motor Transport Association of Connecticut said the closures would reduce truck parking and lead to more fatigued drivers.

The Connecticut Culture and Tourism Office wanted to step in and save the Danbury and North Stonington welcome centers with private sponsorships.

This vocal opposition pressured Malloy to rescind the closures on June 9.

On July 15, however, the governor again proposed closing the buildings but would leave its parking lots open. There were no plans for portapotties.

Finally on Aug. 19, Malloy’s office reported that the facilities would remain open.

It’s not the first year these facilities have been targeted and it won’t be the last.

While some advocate public-private partnerships, the Connecticut DOT reports that a 1960 federal law prohibits commercial outlets along interstates.

The 23 service plazas along I-95, I-395, and Route 15 were grandfathered.

State Rep. Tom Reynolds, D-42nd District, said that the DOT “has begun conversations with the Federal Highway Adminstration to explore possible revenue generation opportunities at the rest areas.”

Courtney explained, “I share your support for innovative ways to improve and invest in our state’s transportation infrastructure, particularly our highway rest areas.”

A tale of two cities now exists in Rhode Island with a closed welcome center in Richmond and, 40 miles away, a beautiful, 5-year-old Blackstone River State Park Visitor Center in Lincoln off Interstate 295 north.

The facility showcases artifacts from the American Industrial Revolution alongside a Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin Robbins. The vendors maintain the building and pay rent.

The center replaces two former non-commercial rest areas that closed in 1989. An adjacent southbound facility is slated to be built. Both received an exemption from federal law.

We should encourage our legislators to request that Connecticut receive an exemption as well. If it’s denied, then they should research advertising or sponsorship options.

Whether it’s Mr. Potato Head, carousels, or historical artifacts; welcome centers should be used to educate travelers about our communities without breaking the state’s bank.

Allowing Connecticut’s Welcome Centers to close would be irresponsible.

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