RICHMOND, OCT. 24 -- Virginia's 10 highway "Welcome Centers," targeted last month for elimination by Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, won a five-month reprieve today, but tourists may now have to pay for the travel brochures that had been distributed free at the centers.
Instead of shutting down the roadside tourism facilities next week -- one of the most publicized and unpopular of Wilder's planned $1.4 billion cuts -- officials will keep the centers open at state expense until the end of March, although half of the 40 employees will be laid off.
Come next spring, the Wilder administration wants state government out of the business completely, and plans to close the welcome centers unless local governments, tourism agencies or entrepreneurs can be persuaded to take them over.
"That's a bad idea," said state Sen. Charles J. Colgan (D-Prince William), who argued that removing state money for the welcome centers sends a message that "there's nobody home in Virginia."
Economic Development Secretary Lawrence H. Framme III today repeated his contention that the $1.3 million annually it costs to run the facilities is not recouped in tax collections on purchases by travelers who use them. But a local government willing to subsidize a welcome center or a private business that charged a "nominal fee" for maps and other tourism information might make a financial go of it, he said.
The state will formally invite proposals next month from those interested in taking over the welcome centers.
"This is going to be very attractive," Framme said. "We expect some innovative proposals."
Although Wilder insists the welcome centers should be taken off the state's hands, Colgan and other legislators said they expect a fight when the General Assembly convenes to keep the facilities open at government expense.
"The state is better equipped than anyone else to do it," he said. "And if the state doesn't have the resources to do it, local governments certainly don't have the resources."
The only highway welcome center in the Washington area is off Interstate 66 in Prince William County near Manassas and attracts about 80,000 tourists annually, officials said. Another center is along Interstate 95 outside Fredericksburg.
John Gessaman, economic development director for Prince William, said local officials are eager to keep the Manassas center open, but he said a budget crunch there would make it difficult for county government to take over the facility.
At the Manassas facility yesterday, the mood was optimistic about the possibility that the welcome centers might stay open after all, colored by sorrow that two of every four employees will be laid off next week.
"Of course it's mixed feelings," said Wally Allen, a travel counselor. "We hope we can stay open, because what we do is good for Virginia."