State of Wisconsin tells tourists, ‘We’re closed!’

    Beginning this spring, visitors and Wisconsinites who try to stop at the state’s Welcome Centers will be startled to find that the help they’ve counted on in the past is gone.

    There is no doubt that the current financial condition of state government in Wisconsin requires spending cutbacks, but it defies logic to cut back in an area that is revenue producing for both public and private sectors of the economy.

    The Department of Tourism’s decision to abruptly close all eight of the remaining Wisconsin Welcome Centers is a glaring example of an action that will have unintended negative consequences for years to come.

    For generations of travelers, the Welcome Centers have been the front door to tourism in Wisconsin, providing vital information about where to go and what to do. They represent the entire state, not one city, county or region. To be blunt, information center staffers provide our guests direct them to where they can spend their vacation dollars and contribute to the welfare of our state through sales and other taxes.

    Even long-time fans of Wisconsin drop in to discover what new festivals or attractions have developed since their last visit. This year, for example, they would learn that the Circus Parade is returning to Milwaukee, along with the Air and Water Show. They would be assured that Milwaukee’s Summerfest and the popular ethnic and art festivals will be staged despite the economic downturn.

    Why are our Welcome Centers being reduced to public restrooms? This is not fully explained, even in the Department of Tourism’s Budget Impact Overview.

    Usage of the Welcome Centers has been declining, according to the Department, but was the decline across-the-board at all locations? And could at least some of the decline be tied to the fluctuation in gasoline prices?

    In the future, say state planners, local organizations such as chambers of commerce and convention and visitor bureaus will assume the role of the Welcome Centers. This option takes for granted that chambers and bureaus are in a financial position to absorb the new role. And it is unlikely that local operations will present a complete picture of all that Wisconsin offers.

    Online efforts are touted as a substitute for physical facilities and person-to-person contact. The Department also claims that out-of-state advertising may be strengthened.  But as significant as those efforts could be, in the short run their costs may be as great or greater than the personal touch provided by the Welcome Centers.

    Let’s take a look at what two other states are doing today:

    • Michigan, which is more financially strapped than Wisconsin, directs visitors to its 14 Welcome Centers, including one that opened just last August.
    • Texas uses its strong Web presence to promote its Texas Travel Information Centers, where professional travel counselors "create a positive first impression of the Lone Star State."

    Clearly, these two states see complementary roles played by online information and physical welcome centers.

     

    What should our state do? Instead of across-the-board cuts for revenue and non-revenue producing departments, make larger cuts in areas generating little or no revenue for the private and public sectors. If eight Welcome Centers are too many for the size of our state, consider closing smaller operations and maintaining heavily used centers, such as the one in Kenosha County at the Illinois-Wisconsin border.
    Instead, the action taken by the Department of Tourism, apparently without input from the tourism industry or consideration by the Legislature, was to end a program that has historically been a stimulus for economic activity. It was an easy way to cut $1.7 million from the state budget, but it may have cut far more than that from the tourism revenue coming into our state this summer and in the years ahead.

    Gov. Jim Doyle and his Department of Tourism should be urged to rescind at least some of the Welcome Center closings for the good of the Wisconsin economy in 2009.

     

    Roger Stafford is the managing editor of the Key Milwaukee traveler’s guide (www.keymilwaukee.com).

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