Spruce up, Virginia!

Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) wants a make-over for rest stops and tourist attractions from the Capital Beltway to the Blue Ridge and said today he is prepared to spend millions on erasing an out-of-town image of the Old Dominion as "a backward, cheap, not-very-polished place."

At the top of Gilmore's to-do list, which he discussed passionately this morning on his monthly radio show, are 41 rest areas and 10 interstate welcome centers, most of which he condemned as eyesores and worse.

"When we bring people in, they stop at rest areas that are, I think, a disgrace--a disgrace!" he told radio station WRVA and the Virginia News Network in a statewide broadcast.

"We need to stop looking so bad, compared to even our southern neighbors. It's time for Virginia to spruce up and shape up and look like what we are and to project ourselves as national and world leaders."

The governor asked the legislature for $6 million to establish new regional visitors centers and up to $500,000 more to give rest areas a good cleaning.

"When people travel in other parts of the country, they have an expectation that Virginia is going to be sort of a backward, cheap, not-very-polished place," Gilmore said. "That's not what Virginia is."

Virginia? The mother of presidents? Home to some of the grandest colonial homes in America? The sacred ground where much of the Civil War was fought?

Gilmore acknowledged the widespread attention paid to Virginia's Civil War sites, but said, "Our battlefields are not up to snuff."

The First Booster said he wants public venues to shine, reflecting the image of "an exciting, dynamic, growth-opportunity state."

"When you invite people into your home, you pick the place up," Gilmore said.

"It's about time for Virginia to do that and to present ourselves for what we really are--which is top-notch and high-class."

Tourism is Virginia's third largest industry--visitors spend $12 billion here a year. Gilmore has proposed $37 million in tourism initiatives, $17 million to draw families and history buffs to Jamestown, which celebrates its 400th anniversary in 2007.

One feature of the Jamestown spending is $1 million for a national slavery museum championed by former governor L. Douglas Wilder (D), the nation's first elected black governor and a friend of Gilmore's.

Gilmore said the museum was an "opportunity for African Americans to find their identity by looking at what went on here in Virginia."

"We should bring African American tourists into the commonwealth and let them see places and things that get them in touch with their heritage," Gilmore added.

The governor envisions eight new regional visitors centers to complement the 10 already familiar to motorists, including the busy pull-offs in Manassas on Interstate 66 and Fredericksburg on Interstate 95.

Gilmore expressed concern that the legislature will turn out to be the one speck on the vision of a freshly scrubbed Virginia when it reviews his budget. "I'm very concerned that some people in the General Assembly won't take this as seriously as I believe that it truly is," Gilmore said.

CAPTION: Gov. James S. Gilmore III during recent appearance at radio station WTOP. He says travelers "stop at rest areas that are, I think, a disgrace--a disgrace!"