HARPERS FERRY — It has taken nearly three years, but the Jefferson County Welcome Center, formerly the Jefferson County Convention and Visitors Bureau, officially opened its doors Saturday.
“It’s really only a ‘soft’ opening,” said Annette Gavin Bates, CEO of the Jefferson County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We’ll be having a grand opening and ribbon cutting this summer for federal, state and local officials, but we needed to open our doors. The merchants needed us. We’re the welcoming center for visitors. That’s why we changed the name. We help them navigate through the county. We’re back. We missed everyone.”
As Bates spoke during an interview on Friday, people kept coming by despite the fact that the center wasn’t open yet.
“We’re the gateway to the county and the state. The beauty of the center can change people’s perception of West Virginia. It elevates us,” Bates said.
A groundbreaking ceremony for the expansion of the existing center, located just off of U.S. 340 on the way to Charles Town, took place in the fall of 2018. At that time, Bates said she had hope that the building would be ready by the summer of 2019.
Bates said the “hard” winter in 2019 delayed construction. Then, with the coming of the pandemic, more delays took place.
“We have been working out of the Clarion across the street since March of 2019,” Bates said.
The first funding for the project, $350,000, came in 2009 from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. Grants and other sources contributed over the years to reach the total of about $1 million. The architect for the expansion is Michael Mills of the Mills Group in Morgantown.
“It took three different versions of the plan to come within budget,” Bates said in an earlier interview. “It was a tremendous process and a lot of good people helped get us here.”
Originally built in the 1970s, the welcome center required various physical building improvements, such as plumbing, electrical and storm water system upgrades. The A-frame-styled center has doubled in size. Offices and meeting rooms are on the second floor.
The cathedral ceiling of the main hall has been enlarged to house an exhibit hall, which highlights the county’s history with story boards, recreational amenities and tourism destinations. The hall itself is a large open space, which used to contain racks of brochures about things to see in the county.
“We felt that the brochures cut down on the conversations that visitors could have with our staff. I call our staff members tourism ambassadors. We also hope at some point that the large space could be used by local businesses for receptions,” Bates said.
The hall also has a door, which replicates one found on John Brown’s Fort in downtown Harpers Ferry. The fort was where John Brown and several of his followers barricaded themselves during the 1859 infamous raid that heralded the beginning of the American Civil War. The center’s door will eventually lead to another exhibit of the fort being designed by set designers with the Contemporary American Theatre Festival in Shepherdstown.
The nonprofit Jefferson County Convention and Visitors Bureau operates the center, and the Shepherdstown and Charles Town tourist centers with public tax revenues. The pandemic forced the CVB to temporarily shut down the Charles Town and Shepherdstown facilities.
“Because of the pandemic, our funding is down 38 percent, but we’ve fared better than a lot of organizations,” Bates said.
Bates said she hope to open the Shepherdstown visitors’ center in the next two weeks. No decisions have been made concerning Charles Town’s visitors’ center. She is in the process of hiring people, about 12, to staff the center and the facility in Shepherdstown.
Work still has to be done at the center even after the “soft” opening. Bates thanked county maintenance workers for their help, as well as the CVB board and county commissioners for their support.
“We are so excited and proud to be opening our doors again,” Bates said.
The center will be open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.