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Plan to save state welcome center could become prototype for other programs

An innovative solution that combined community efforts to save the state welcome center on U.S. Highway 301 from the governor’s budget cuts now be explored as a partner-type plan to creatively reduce other agency expenses, which, in turn, may kind keep some of Georgia’s facilities in operation.
Gov. Sonny Perdue sought to close the Screven County center and fire its two employees for an annual savings of $139,400. State lawmakers, however, restored $100,000 in the budget to operate the center and introduced a way to make up the additional $39,400.
The proposal, which survived a possible line-item veto by Perdue May 13, unites the community.
City and county governments and area technical colleges will work together to reduce the cost of operating the center, the oldest operational facility of its kind in the nation.
And this form of operation may become even more common.
“With the budget cuts, something we are looking at more is partnerships and that is the direction from the legislature,” said Lauren Curry, director for public and governmental affairs for the Department of Natural Resources. “We are grappling with cuts and trying to stretch the dollar.
“The Department of Natural Resources, like all state agencies, is looking to other ways and investigate partnerships,” Curry said.
The plan may involve local governments cutting the grass at the visitor center and technical colleges offering classes on tourism .
The plan involves a partnership with local communities and businesses for the continuing operations of the center.
State Rep. Jon Burns said the center serves the public and is a smart investment because area technical colleges can coordinate with the center to provide learning experiences for their hotel/restaurant/tourism management, marketing/management and horticulture.
“I felt confident it would stick, but …,” said Burns with a lift in his voice of uncertainty about whether Perdue would veto the proposal, one that can be viewed as a prototype for other programs.
“We are learning from these tough times,” Burns said.
Ogeechee Technical College currently has three programs of study where students can benefit from working at the center. OTC representatives say the chance to provide an outdoor classroom on state property will be a valuable component of their education.
“I don’t know exactly who came up with the plan, but it works,” said State Sen. Jack Hill, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee.
“I appreciate the local community who was responsible for the plan to keep it open,” Hill said. “This is a good example of the community stepping forward and working together.
“That welcome center has a lot of local support,” Hill said.
Hill, a state lawmaker since 1990, said he can remember that the center has been saved from closure four times.
Screven County Commission Chairman Stan Sheppard said the county is going to cut the grass at the welcome center and Ogeechee Tech will take care of landscaping, as part of its horticulture classes.
“This was a good example of coming together to save what I think is a worthy cause,” Sheppard said. “This welcome center has promoted not only Screven County but this part of the state since the 1960s.”
Sheppard said it was the first welcome center in Georgia and is now the oldest in the United States.
“They’ve been after our welcome center for a number of years,” Sheppard said. “We’ve been able to produce numbers that have sent them packing. The last few years, the numbers haven't been that impressive.”
Sheppard gave Burns credit for coming up with the partnership idea that saved the facility.
The City of Sylvania is going to help with wastewater treatment, trimming trees and maintaining overhead lights, said Mayor Margaret Evans.
“We will work with the county and Ogeechee Tech to do our part to keep it afloat,” Evans said.
Evans said the public-private partnership would be a good model for other agencies.
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.”
The Screven County center had 67,600 visitors in 2008, according to the Georgia Department of Economic Development.