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State pledges to reopen most North Country welcome centers

Shelburne location will remain closed

Both State Senator Jeff Woodburn, left, and Jeff Rose, Commissioner of the Department of Resources and Economic Development, participated in the discussion of North Country welcome centers. Littleton and Colebrook’s centers will have seasonal hours starting Memorial Day weekend. Darin Wipperman/The Littleton Courier. (click for larger version)
April 17, 2013
BETHLEHEM — According to plans announced Friday at the Rocks Estate, state rest areas in Littleton, Colebrook, and North Conway will be reopened on Memorial Day weekend. Both Chris Clement and Jeff Rose, respective commissioners of the state transportation and resources departments, were on hand to announce the news.

The Littleton and Colebrook welcome centers will open full-time between Memorial Day and Columbus Day. North Conway's rest area will be open year round on a part-time basis.

State funding shortfalls led to closure or reduced hours at several welcome centers in recent years. The Littleton location, at northbound Exit 44 of I-93, attracted about 85,000 annual visitors before then.

The Route 2 welcome center in Shelburne will remain closed, the state announced. Clement said there are infrastructure issues at that site that will keep the stop off limits for now.

Clement said Friday, "There's a lot of emotion around welcome centers." The places to stop and gain area information are "a very important thing for the traveling public," he added.

State Senator Jeff Woodburn said many residents have expressed concern about closure of the welcome centers. "I don't think we could do any worse than we are doing now," he said. Lack of funding to keep centers open "is a disgrace to all of us in government," the Senator concluded.

The stops can offer a boost local economies. North County chambers of commerce have information at the centers. They have found that those employed at the centers can also suggest businesses to both U.S. and Canadian tourists.

Rose said the welcome centers are a cooperative venture between his Department of Resources and Economic Development, and the Department of Transportation. He added that the welcome centers are designed so visitors "have an experience that we think is reflective of the state of New Hampshire."

Clement and Rose informed Woodburn, Executive Councilor Ray Burton, and other attendees, that a third party study will take place soon to give the state advice on welcome centers.

Burton wondered about the value of any outside study. Rose said the plan could provide "a strategic direction" for agencies. Clement added, "I think we need to have an independent third party come in."

Even with such a perspective from department leaders, Burton said the selected contractor should have "a feel for the culture" of New Hampshire. Clement said that, like any other department contract, the state will advertise the study through a request for proposal.

Littleton resident Lyle Bulis hopes for more improvements to serve welcome center guests. "We need to bring technology to the rest areas," he said. This would include use of videos and more advertising to promote the state. For example, Bulis said ski and snowmobile trail conditions, in both English and French, would be great information for visitors.

Lori Harnois, of the state's travel and tourism bureau, said improved technology is in the works. This would include LCD televisions and advertising.

Private funding of welcome centers is not an option, for now. Federal law prohibits such a move. Littleton selectman Marghie Seymour suggested that towns should lobby to get that changed. State DOT federal liaison Mark Sanborn said, historically, "bureaucratic resistance and a strong lobby against" private funding have been the issues for the continued bar on private welcome centers.

Even with current constraints, Clement said he sees the wisdom in ensuring "more control over our own welcome centers."

Burton noted that representatives of both U.S. Senators Jeanne Shaheen and Kelly Ayotte, as well as Representative Ann Kuster, were at the meeting. He suggested that changes to the prevailing federal law could assist New Hampshire to keep welcome centers open year round.

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