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New welcome center in Fort Mill a first for South Carolina

Johnnie Mae assists Carol Kimrey of Maiden, N.C. at the Fort Mill Welcome Center on Thursday. Even in the digital age the new welcome centers will stress the personal touch.
Johnnie Mae assists Carol Kimrey of Maiden, N.C. at the Fort Mill Welcome Center on Thursday. Even in the digital age the new welcome centers will stress the personal touch. dworthington@heraldonline.com

South Carolina broke ground on its first new welcome center in more than three decades Thursday, with officials turning ceremonial shovels filled with sand.

The new Fort Mill-area welcome center on the southbound lanes of Interstate 77 near Carowinds will cost about $4 million and should be open by the fall of 2016.

The architectural emphasis is on a modern, open feel but with historic clues. The exterior brickwork will feature three distinct colors to mimic the area’s soil samples. The colors are often seen in Catawba Indian pottery.

The Charleston-based firm of Liollio Architecture designed the new welcome center. J.M. Cope Construction of Rock Hill is building it.

The existing center will remain open until the new one is finished – good news for travelers and tourism officials. The state estimates that 1 million people visit the Fort Mill-area welcome center each year. The staff’s assistance generates a $239,000 economic impact, much of that local.

The inside emphasis is on the digital world. There will be self-serve kiosks for travel information, a digital guest book, and monitors broadcasting real-time weather and traffic information.

While Thursday’s groundbreaking – attended by state and local tourism officials and representatives from York County – focused on the digital opportunities, one thing will remain unchanged. Visitors will be greeted with a smile from the state’s certified travel consultants. This time, though, it won’t be from behind the large welcome desk. Each consultant will have a tablet to access information to help visitors.

“There is nothing like the personal touch,” said Jayne Scarborough, executive director of the Olde English District Commission. The commission promotes tourism in York, Chester and Lancaster counties, as well as in Chesterfield, Fairfield, Kershaw and Union counties.

People can check the travel distance on a map, but they often “ask someone is it really three hours?” Scarborough said.

“People want a third-party endorsement” of what they read or hear, said Duane Parrish, director of the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism.

Welcome center staff members go to school to learn their craft. First, they study national travel information and then receive South Carolina-specific instruction. They learn about map distances, roads, attractions, weather and traffic conditions. They also take “fam tours” to familiarize themselves with other parts of the state.

The state process works so well that Scarborough had her workers at the commission’s welcome center in Richburg go through the same training.

The training helped the Olde English staff know what questions to expect, helped them learn about all of South Carolina and even what questions to expect from travelers heading to North Carolina, she said. The Richburg welcome center is on the northbound side of I-77.

Scarborough said the training teaches the staff one essential tool – “how to read a map upside down.”

Don Worthington: 803-329-4066, @rhherald_donw

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