A former auto dealership is set to become the strategic hub for tourism and economic development for Chester and six nearby counties.
The Nourse Interstate Auto Mall is getting a makeover, transforming showroom space into offices for the Olde English District Commission, which oversees tourism marketing in the region, the Chester County Economic Development office, and a sheriff's substation.
A second building might be converted into convention space.
"Tourism is the second-largest industry in the state," said Karlisa Parker, director of Chester County's economic development office. "My job is to attract industry.
"It makes good sense for us to come together in a collaborative fit."
Jayne Scarborough, executive director of the Olde English District Commission, said the location at the intersection of Interstate 77 and S.C. 9 is almost the exact center of the commission's territory - Chester, Chesterfield, Fairfield Kershaw, Lancaster, Union and York counties.
The commission's welcome center would be open seven days a week and accessible to both northbound and southbound interstate travelers. The welcome center should be open in about six months, Scarborough said.
The work at the former auto dealership comes as the state struggles to keep its nine welcome centers open.
Budget cuts have forced the state Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism to close the welcome centers on Tuesdays and Wednesdays - the least-busy days, according to surveys.
The department solicited bids from tourism organizations to help pay for all or part of operations at the welcome centers.
The State Budget and Control Board recently issued contracts for the Dillon and Santee welcome centers on Interstate 95. The Pee Dee Tourism Commission and the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau were the only groups to submit bids.
Charleston, which had already been subsidizing operations at the Santee welcome center, won a five-year contract to help operate the welcome center, one of the gateways to the historic city. Charleston committed $157,369 a year for five years to operate the Santee center.
The Pee Dee Tourism board committed $80,000 a year for five years to help operate the Dillon welcome center.
No bids were made for the Fort Mill welcome center. Scarborough said one reason the Olde English District Commission did not submit a bid for the Fort Mill welcome center was the plans for the Richburg location.
"Even with GPS and smart phones," Scarborough said, "a lot of people want to have a brochure in hand, want to talk to someone."
Scarborough said it is hard to measure the effect of not having the Fort Mill welcome center open every day.
"You don't know who you have missed," she said.
When the welcome center is closed, signs direct visitors to the York County Visitors Center, operated by the Rock Hill/York County Convention and Visitor's Bureau at the Baxter Hood Center.
Putting the Olde English offices at the Richburg site is the fulfillment of plans for the S.C. 9 corridor, Parker said.
The area has been envisioned as a gateway to Chester County, calling for businesses that created "a sense of arrival, of place - the gateway to our commerce and quality of life."
Various groups had considered buying the auto mall, which closed in 2009, but none fulfilled that goal, she said.
When auction bids for the building were under the minimum sales price, the county government discussed buying the building, County Supervisor Carlisle Roddey
Ultimately, the Chester Healthcare Foundation bought the buildings and 14-acre site for $1.5 million, Roddey said, and the county is leasing the site for $7,500 a month under a lease-purchase agreement.
Total cost to the county to purchase the buildings and the site will be about $1.8 million, he said.
Parker said the location is ideal for her and economic development prospects - it is about 40 minutes from Charlotte-Douglas International Airport.
The location also will give her more space. Currently her offices are at York Tech's Chester Center. She plans to move by the end of April.
To highlight existing industries in Chester, Parker said she plans to fly their corporate flags at the new complex.
The redevelopment of the auto dealership is attracting attention from other possible clients for space in one of the two buildings, she said.
Roddey said there is interest in the second building, which could be converted into convention space that could handle as many as 1,200 people.
Roddey is hopeful the new location will bring more jobs to Chester County, where the unemployment rate has been almost twice the state's average - between 16 and 22 percent - for the last two years.
"You never know who is going to stop," he said.