SC welcome center in Fort Mill going digital with $4M improvements

A rendering of the new S.C. Welcome Center expected to open on Interstate 77 in Fort Mill in summer 2016.
A rendering of the new S.C. Welcome Center expected to open on Interstate 77 in Fort Mill in summer 2016. Courtesy of S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism

It’s time for some major work on the front porch of South Carolina.

Trees will be cut down for a better view. Large screen television sets will be installed. Comfortable chairs and new restrooms are in the works.

What won’t be replaced, will be the smiling faces, the greeting, “It’s a great day in South Carolina,” followed by answers to any questions about the state, from Abbeville to Yonges Island and all points in between.

Work on the new front porch – officially the South Carolina Welcome Center on Interstate 77 near Fort Mill – will start in about 90 days and should be finished by mid-summer 2016.

The good news for travelers – and those in the hospitality industry – is the current Fort Mill Welcome Center will remain open during construction. It won’t close until the new one is open, say state parks, recreation and tourism officials.

Cost of the new 10,000-square-foot welcome center is about $4 million. The Hardeeville welcome center on Interstate 95 near the Georgia line – the busiest welcome center in the state – is also slated for new construction. Cost of the Hardeeville center will be slightly more and the staff there will work from trailers while their new center is built, state officials said.

Duane Parrish, director of the state’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, said the current facilities are dated, having been built in the 1970s.

The key focus on the new welcome centers will be digital information. The big, hotel-like desk at the Fort Mill center will be replaced by several “pods” were travelers can meet with a welcome center consultant to answer their questions and, hopefully learn more about South Carolina. The information, including maps, can then be downloaded to a person’s cell phone or other device.

There will be a large screen television where people can plan their trips themselves.

The state’s travel information will be available in nine different languages, an important consideration as many foreign travelers use Charlotte Douglas International Aiport as the starting point for the fly-and-drive vacations, Parrish said.

Web cams will show what’s going in other parts of the state live.

“Our hope is if they stop at the welcome center they will become more invested in South Carolina,” Parrish said Thursday.

Paper won’t entirely go away. “GPS doesn’t always replace M-A-P,” Parrish said.

In addition to paper state maps, attractions will still display their brochures, Parrish said. The amount of display space, however, will likely be less. At the current Fort Mill welcome center racks of attraction information take up about 50 percent of the wall space.

Other changes include bringing the restrooms and the vending machines into the welcome center, Parrish said.

The state’s Department of Transportation will have space at the new welcome center for its State Highway Emergency Program which assists stranded motorists. Trucks that patrol I-77 will be based at the welcome center.

Lisa Meadows, executive director of the Rock Hill/York County Convention & Visitor’s Bureau, said the new welcome center shows the state’s dedication to tourism. In 2010, the state was looking at organizations such as the visitor’s center to take over operations of the welcome centers.

Meadows said the biggest benefit of new center is proximity. “We are the first city people come to after the center,” she said.

Meadows said the emphasis on digital will help, but it won’t replace the face-to-face, personal contact workers at the welcome center offer.

“That’s why it is called hospitality,” Meadows said.

Don Worthington: 803-329-4066, @rhherald_donw