State to sell information centers

South Carolina Parks, Recreation and Tourism Department is trying a new approach to running the state's "Welcome To South Carolina" centers. It is seeking proposals from state-based nonprofit tourism organizations to run the interstate welcome centers. Looking to keep the information centers open but trim funding, the department hopes to sell the nine centers, including the North Augusta center on Interstate 20 at a price of $214,813. The centers have an annual combined operation cost of $1.9 million. "I know there have been some other municipalities who have taken up the banner, and it has been great for them," said Carla Cloud, executive director of the Aiken Downtown Development Association. Cloud sees this as valuable public/private partnership for the tourism industry and hopes that an entity or group of entities would take advantage of the project, which she feels could be a very worthwhile venture. "We went there and put up a display. We were amazed at the people who came through and saw that. These areas are utilized a lot," she said. Cloud feels her organization is too small to take on the task but would be open to a combination approach to running the center. "Our main concern is that those welcome centers remain in operation," said Bill Ellen, chairman of the South Carolina Tourism Alliance. "Everyone knows the budget is strapped, and the state has got to look for alternative funding." Ellen hoped that tourism-related groups will understand the need to benefit the industry as a whole and keep the centers open. "Everybody knows Charleston stepped up and operated one of them," Ellen said. "We would not want one group to operate all the centers throughout the state." The Charleston Area Tourist Board helps to upkeep and operate a center in the Lowcountry. Looking into a partnership with private enterprises, such as restaurants, would be a possibility Ellen would consider, as long as the focus was still on information and presenting the state's attractions. "That might be a win-win; I can certainly see that as a potential option," he said. The department plans to have contracts by August and to turn over operation of the centers to organizations by Sept. 1. Groups have until July 30 for proposals to be submitted. Contact Mike Gellatly at mgellatly@aikenstandard.com.