COLUMBIA — Columbia-area tourism officials want the Statehouse to open for tours every Saturday, saying the historic structure would be a draw for the city’s 4 million visitors each year.
“We want to give visitors an opportunity to go home with some history,” Ric Luber, president of the Midlands Authority for Conventions, Sports and Tourism, told lawmakers on the Statehouse Committee this week.
The center of state government – surrounded by statues of politicians and war memorials – is key to growing the region’s $1 billion-a-year tourism industry, Luber said. The Statehouse now is open tours during weekdays and only one Saturday – the first – of each month.
The Saturday tours have attracted 132 visitors on average during the past year, said Toni Nance, governmental relations director for S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, which oversees tour guides and the Statehouse gift shop.
The state tourism agency loses $1,500 a year on the once-a-month Saturday tours and projects it would lose $6,500 if tours were offered every Saturday, Nance said. But the agency could make up the shortfall with more sales at the gift shop.
The Statehouse was open on Saturdays after the historic site was renovated in the late 1990s, but small crowds and budget constraints led to limiting tours, legislators said.
Saturday tours are held hourly, and the Statehouse doors are locked until the next tour starts. “It’s not user friendly to visitors,” Nance said.
Luber and Nance asked about having the Statehouse open between tours so people did not have to wait outside and could visit the gift shop.
State Sen. Danny Verdin, R-Laurens, asked Wednesday if tourism officials had looked into having acting students from area colleges hold tours as characters from the 19th century and wear period costumes.
Zackary Wise, chief of the state Bureau of Protective Services, the agency that patrols the Statehouse grounds, said he would need to add at least three more officers to the three already on duty to patrol the Statehouse if it were open all day Saturday.
“It takes a lot of manpower with kids jumping on furniture.”
Lawmakers were agreeable to the idea of opening the Statehouse on more Saturdays. However, the Statehouse Committee asked Luber and Nance for more information, including costs and staffing estimates, before making a final decision.