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Community unites to save welcome center

The state legislative session has ended, but the struggle to save the visitor information center on Highway 301 continues.
Gov. Sonny Perdue wanted to close the Screven County center and fire its two employees for an annual savings of $139,400. But in the legislative session that ended Friday, state lawmakers restored $100,000 in the budget to operate the center and proposed a way to make up the additional $39,400.
City and county governments and area technical colleges would work together to reduce the cost of operating the center, said state Rep. Jon Burns, R-Newington.
Details of the plan were still being worked out, but could include such things as local governments cutting the grass at the visitor center and technical colleges offering classes on tourism there, Burns said.
Even then, the plan would hinge on the governor leaving the $100,000 in the budget and not killing it with a line-item veto – something he can do within 40 days of the end of the legislative session. 
“It’s a long ways from being a done deal yet,” Burns said. But he was optimistic that the center could be saved. “We’ve got a game plan. It’s a great resource.”
The plan involves a partnership with local communities and businesses for the continuing operations of the center.
“This center is important for serving the traveling public and it’s a smart investment because technical colleges in the area can coordinate with the center to provide real world learning experiences for their Hotel/Restaurant/Tourism Management, Marketing/Management, and Horticulture students,” Burns said.
Ogeechee Technical College currently has three programs of study for which students can benefit from working at the center. Representatives from the college say the opportunity to provide an outdoor classroom on state property will be a valuable component of their education.
Burns wishes to extend thanks to the City of Sylvania, Screven County Commissioners, Senator Jack Hill, and Representative Ben Harbin, for their strong support of the Sylvania State Visitor Center.
This wouldn’t be the first time the visitor’s center has benefited from strong local support. The facility that was dedicated in January 1962 sits on four acres that were donated to the state Department of Commerce by A.H. Rowan, owner of the adjoining Wade Plantation.
The facility, dedicated by Gov. S. Ernest Vandiver, was the state’s first welcome station and tourist information center.
In dedicating the building, Vandiver said, “This highway can be the avenue to a better day in Georgia, if law abiding tourists passing through our state are treated kindly and courteously, and accorded the hospitality due our visitors. These people are our guests, even though many of them, are within our borders only a short time. I am dedicating this center with that theme in mind, a hospitality center for travelers in a truly hospitable state."
Perdue also wanted to close the visitor's center in Plains, Ga., for a savings of $186,400. But state lawmakers restored funding for that center too, citing a law that requires the state to maintain and operate a tourist center in the vicinity of the home of any Georgian elected president or governor.
The Screven County center had 67,600 visitors in 2008, according to the Georgia Department of Economic Development.