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Wisconsin welcome centers could stay open

Julie Tracey works at the Beloit Welcome Center in Beloit on Feb. 25. Under a new deal, such centers could get help to keep their doors open.   AP File Photo by Todd Richmond

Julie Tracey works at the Beloit Welcome Center in Beloit on Feb. 25. Under a new deal, such centers could get help to keep their doors open. AP File Photo by Todd Richmond

Scott Bauer
AP Writer

Madison — Visitors to Wisconsin looking for ways to avoid road construction, directions to the Dells or the best place to get a bite to eat could continue posing their quandaries to a real live person under a deal endorsed by local tourism officials.

The plan would provide money to help pay for workers in eight welcome centers around the state. The state Department of Tourism earlier this month eliminated the 13 positions in a cost-savings move that Gov. Jim Doyle wants to make permanent in his budget proposal.

The Tourism Department argued the welcome centers were less effective than they used to be since more visitors are accessing the Internet for information. Between 2002 and last year, visits to the Tourism Department’s Web site more than doubled from 2.1 million to 4.8 million. However, over that same time visits to the eight welcome centers dropped from 940,000 to 867,000.

Even as the plan to pull staff from the centers was moving ahead, state tourism officials were talking with local agencies about ways they could take over operations there.

Those talks led to a compromise that was adopted by the Legislature’s budget committee Thursday. The $1.2 million in annual state money, along with the workers, still would be eliminated. But starting in 2010, $160,000 a year in grants would be available for non-profits, Native American tribes and local governments to access in order to run the centers.

Starting this July the eight centers would share $160,000 to begin the transition.

The deal still must get passed by the full Legislature and be signed by Gov. Jim Doyle before it takes effect.

Even though the amount of grant money is roughly only 13 percent of what the state is paying now, local tourism officials say it’s better than nothing and they can use it to at least have people working in the welcome centers during the busiest times.

The grants are a way to help those local tourism agencies mitigate their costs and weren’t intended to allow for a complete replacement of what the state had been doing, said Mark Richardson, deputy state tourism secretary.

Any help from the state helps, said Dave Clements, director of the La Crosse Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“We’ve been looking at a combination of volunteers and local businesses supporting us with some of their staff and some of our own staff,” he said.

The money provided for this year should be enough to pay for having workers at the center, located just east of the Mississippi River and the border with Minnesota, through October, Clements said.

The other seven centers are in Beloit, Superior, Grant County, Hurley, Marinette, Hudson and Kenosha.

The Beloit center, just across the border from Illinois on Interstate 90, by far saw the most visitors last year with more than 284,000 stops. The second-highest, with half that many at 142,000, was the one in Kenosha.

During peak summer hours, the three busiest welcome centers in Beloit, Kenosha and La Crosse, were open seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Martha Mitchell, executive director of Visit Beloit, that city’s visitors and convention bureau, said she is studying ways to use the state grant money, along with some volunteers, to at least keep the Beloit welcome center staffed during weekends and other busy times. How many hours it will be staffed “depends on what we can afford to do,” she said.

“It’s not just important to Beloit it’s important to the entire state,” Mitchell said of the welcome center. “The No. 1 question is, ‘How do you get to the Dells?'”

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