County Manager sends memorandum to County Commissioners
regarding the McIntosh County Visitors Center
March 7, 2019
TO: MCINTOSH COUNTY BOARD OF COMMISSIONERS
FROM: J. Patrick Zoucks, County Manager
RE: McIntosh County Visitors Center
As the rumor mill continues to spin, I think it’s important to address as many rumors as I can regarding the proposed McIntosh County Visitors Center:
- The Cafe Risque site was initially purchased as the site for the proposed McIntosh County Visitors Center. The County paid $300,00 for the three-acre site and soon thereafter tore down the building. Nothing else has been done on the site.
- The County included $350,000.00 in the 2016 SPLOST for the construction of a Visitors Center.
- The County began a review of the issue last year when it became obvious that
$350,000.00 would not accommodate the construction of a large, free-standing Visitors Center. It is estimated that the engineering, paving, curb and gutter work will exceed
$350,000.00 in cost, leaving no funding for the construction of a Visitors Center.
- Staff (Ad Poppell and Shawn Jordan) met with Cheryl Hargrove, Director of Visitor Industry and Partner Relations, Georgia Department of Economic Development to discuss the cost and budgeting process for our “stand alone” center. Ms. Hargrove cautioned that centers were limited in what they could accomplish. Staff has researched the topic and confirmed the caution provided by Hargrove: “Are DMO Visitor Centres Making a Blockbuster Mistake?” destinationthink.com, February 28, 2017 ed.; “Do Your Visitors Still Need a Visitor Centre?” destinationthink.com, March 23, 2018 ed.
- The County considered changing locations and missions for the Concepts were considered which incorporated water-front locations, as well as commercial fishing exhibits. At the end of the day all of these options were deemed far too expensive in our current budgetary climate.
- In February, 2019, County staff noticed that the building formerly known as the “Wendys” restaurant was being advertised for auction on March 6, 2019. After staffing the issue, it was decided to present the proposed purchase to the McIntosh County Board of Commissioners. On February 12, 2019 the Board of Commissioners, in Executive Session, authorized the County Manager to offer up to $200,000.00 for the building.
- On Tuesday February 19, 2019, the County Manager presented a contract to the Board to purchase the building for $192,500. The county approved the purchase in open meeting as required by law. The County expects to close on the purchase next week.
- There are some obvious facts which are not being considered by the various social media critics. Namely, the behavior of the 50 states in placing welcome centers immediately adjacent to interstate highways; the billions of dollars spent on making it extremely convenient for interstate travelers to access information, providing Visitor Centers with their own exit and on-ramps, and large, extravagant greenways. We have an arterial flow of approximately 50,000 vehicles per day through our county. The placement of the Visitors Center away from the interstate, out of the viewshed of a traveler, defies logic, if the mission of the center is to draw visitors off of this vital artery. The travelers on U. S. 17, or already in Darien, are not in need of encouragement to visit Darien. They are there. Nothing prevents the establishment of a network of kiosks or small displays in the various businesses in Darien, but it is my honest opinion, fully supported by staff, that the center must be as close to the interstate as possible, and be highly visible even at that location. (We have considered a satellite center in the old American Legion building across from the Post Office. This building has significant historical value as it was originally constructed with a gift from
- Reynolds in the 1940s).
- In the past Darien and McIntosh County have, for whatever reason, chosen to ignore the potential of this vital artery, 1-95. We simply cannot afford the luxury of ignorance for one more day. The Chamber, or whoever operates the center, must be adequately funded and mission driven if we are to accomplish this vital task. The job has been further complicated by the advent of the cell phone, which has transformed the entire travel industry. No longer is the paper rack card the primary source of information. Instead, most of those entering the center already have some knowledge of the area and the points of interest that are in that area. The McIntosh County Chamber of Commerce has, in the past, done a good job with an extremely limited budget. If we are to improve the results of any task we must improve the contributions of the players. The Chamber’s primary source of income is the McIntosh County Bed Tax contribution from the Board of Commissioners. The County has regularly committed more than the mandated portion of that tax to the Chamber. I have been working diligently to improve collections and, considering the statutory limitations of my office, to increase the numbers of hotels and other paying facilities. We will increase contributions to the center operations. It just takes time.
- Ultimately, I’d like to see a technical marvel built in what was once a Wendy’s restaurant. I’d like to see it staffed with a concierge service to rival the Cloister and the King and Prince. I’d like to see live remote cameras on Sapelo’s beach, Gray’s Reef (underwater) and in the River Swamp with high definition displays in the I’d like to see a website with the same. I’d like to see monthly meetings with all B&B and hotel operators, restauranteurs and other managers of points of interest. The point is this: the staff in the center should know the tonight’s special at Sapelo Station or Skippers; they should know wait times; they should be able to reach tour operators at the drop of a hat, like Nikki Alford and Phillip Kempton; they should know who’s playing tonight at Blue Bay; they should be able to call ahead to Speeds Kitchen; they should know where the Wednesday Night Church Services are held; they should…
I said above that collection improvement takes time. The overriding fact that we must consider is that we may not have time. Recent projections indicate a continuing population decline. Our schools are struggling, for whatever reason. Our limited ad valorem base is not increasing.
Today 40% of our children will wake up in poverty. This should not be happening in a county with the natural beauty and resources that we have. But it is.
Staff and I made a strategic decision to recommend that we stand up and do something. Something now, as opposed to five years later when we have sufficient funding (maybe) to build at some other location. We’re working diligently, against tremendous odds, to secure limited funding. We need your help. We provided you with an option. You took that option. Now we need your support, vocal support to follow through with your commitment. I was excited to see Chamber Director Mandy Harrison’s endorsement of the plan in today’s Brunswick News. Chamber leadership is instrumental in the development of a plan to move forward.
Please feel free to use this information as you see fit.