The Blackstone Valley Visitor Center in Pawtucket has a historical timeline of the valley on the wall, a 90-seat theater showing a film about the region and a large, walkable floor map.
Over the years, as the recession forced budgets cuts, centers like this one were often eliminated. In Rhode Island, for example, the roadside Interstate 95 visitor center between exit 2 and exit 3 fell victim to the stagnant economy, says Evan Smith, president and CEO of Discover Newport.
But the impact of budget cuts and the lure of online travel planning have not been so sweeping as to obviate the need for the personal contact, gateway accessibility, convenience and firsthand information staff and amenities at visitor centers can provide, say Smith and others involved in their operation.
The floor map, which pinpoints riverboat locations on the Blackstone River, mill buildings in old mill towns, bike trails and other historic sites, is popular with schoolchildren and tourists alike, said Wendy Jencks, the Blackstone Valley Visitor Center manager.
“Our location says a lot about why we’re here,” said Jencks, “because the Slater Mill historic site is right across the street and that’s considered the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. We are a gateway to Rhode Island, a southern gateway to the Blackstone Valley, and we do a service to the city.
“People will stop here and get information about the Paw Sox, local restaurants [and] parks, so it’s good for the city, the state, the whole region,” she said.
Smith, who admitted to being “obsessed” with visitor centers and their continued viability, reached out to lawmakers and recently helped procure $1.6 million in federal aid in March that will go toward installing roofs where there once were tented coverings at The Newport Visitor Information Center.
Larger than many welcome centers, the Newport center is a place where railroad and bus transit routes converge, and operates in partnership with R.I. Public Transit Authority to cover costs.