FRANKLIN COUNTY — Franklin County is getting a new welcome center.
Details on the project are still sparse as the Vermont Agency of Transportation explores potential sites for an adequate location, but the project is moving forward after it was recommended by a state-sponsored study which examined Vermont’s visitor center system.
“I personally think it will be huge if we can catch people before they get down to Exit 19. With all the work getting done in Swanton, St. Albans, Montgomery, Enosburg – if we can educate people coming over the border about what’s going on in Northwest Vermont, ultimately we all stand to benefit from the exposure,” Franklin County Industrial Development Corporation director Tim Smith said.
Smith has been a consistent advocate for placing a new welcome center in Franklin County closer to the border, and he’s talked about the need on multiple occasions when speaking about FCIDC’s work.
Project organizers, however, have yet to make a formal announcement due to how early in the process the new welcome center still is.
“We are looking at both property along the interstate as well as sites off the interstate near interchange areas. We are very early on in the process and focused on developing a list of viable sites,” VTrans project delivery bureau director Robert White said by email.
A 2021 study on Vermont’s visitor centers, however, does have a few more details about the project, including a proposed location.
The study recommended that a good site would be the Swanton’s interchange at Exit 21, which would help funnel drivers out east on Route 78 and help tourists get information about what’s available in the rest of Franklin County.
“With the convergence of VT-78 and I-89 in Swanton, such a facility could be strategically located to capture a high percentage of those travelers coming into Vermont from northern New York and Quebec,” the study reads.
The study also recommended that the state enter a private-public partnership to build the center. Conceptual drawings include the idea of a “contemporary farmhouse” that fits with Vermont ideals and introduces travelers to the culture of the state due to its included community gardens and outdoor spaces.
The actuality will most likely be different. State projects often take years before completion after moving through multiple iterations and stages, but the state’s efforts to create a potential model for the center is a good sign that they’re serious about moving it forward.
As for the state’s incentive, a new welcome center would also help solve a few issues involving the financial burden of running visitor centers in the state. Currently, there are 16 visitor, information and welcome center facilities dotted along the state’s highway system. The newest, in Bennington, was built in 2013.
The system’s older facilities, however, are expected to be a major cost over the next 20 years due to the need for improvements and upkeep.
Each year, Vermont spends roughly $5.7 million to keep its welcome center network functioning. At the same rate carried forward, the addition of preventative maintenance costs – estimated at $17.5 million over the next two decades – will create a budget shortfall of just under $4 million.
As a result, the state has two primary alternatives: increase welcome center budgets or become more efficient.
Efficiency could come by consolidating Georgia’s two centers and Alburgh’s facility into a new welcome center north of St. Albans via a public-private partnership. By letting a private company run the center, the new facility would cost the state less in theory.
For Smith though, it’s a win for the region either way. As Franklin County continues to change and grow, travelers to the region would be better equipped to find information about the county’s recreation opportunities and its historic downtowns.
“It was crucial to have an established site between the border and the Swanton exit,” Smith said. “You get past Swanton, you’re going to miss the whole northern part of the county.”