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Thursday, Mar 26, 2015

County may close eastside tourism info office


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During the last 2 1/2 years, the number of people stopping by the visitor information welcome center at Interstate 75 and State Road 50 steadily has dropped while the cost of operating the facility continues to increase.

So much so that Tourism Development Coordinator Tammy Heon on Tuesday will ask Hernando County commissioners to close the center, re-assign its one-full-time employee and put the money it takes to run the operation into other marketing efforts.

“It is no longer economically feasible to maintain the location,” Heon said in a staff report.

The office, at 31085 Cortez Blvd., about one-tenth of a mile east of I-75, opened in July 2013. Before that it was in what now is a Quality Inn near the area.

Thinking at the time was that Hernando needed a tourism center at what was known as the “Gateway to Hernando County.”

Last year the tourism department opened a location inside a gift store at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park. Heon has said that office attracts large numbers of people.

Not everyone is happy with the proposed closing. Some people say doing so might hurt tourism in the county.

“I don’t know where they’re coming from with this idea,” said Realtor Dave Hill, who has an office in the same plaza as the tourism center by I-75.

Hills said about 40,000 cars daily exit the interstate to visit restaurants or stay at one of five hotels there. Once motorists pull off the highway they often have no clue where they are or what there is to see; failure to have a tourism information center nearby will jeopardize any thoughts those people might have of sticking around.

Former county Commissioner June Ester lobbied hard for creation of a tourism development department when she was on the board in the 1990s and was the first chairwoman of the Tourism Development Council.

If the motivation to close the eastside office is based solely on comparing numbers from the Weeki Wachee location, that is skewed thinking, Ester said.

People at Weeki Wachee are tourists who already have settled on spending time in Hernando or are people who live in the area, she said. “It’s not like you’re capturing people passing down the highway.”

Ester said it is not particularly convenient to access the Weeki Wachee office because visitors have to tell the gate attendant they are there to visit the office and not the attraction. They get a card allowing them to get into the park and are given a limited length of time to be there, Ester said.

Ester said there are plenty of retirees and volunteers who would welcome a chance to man the eastside office, which the county leases.

County Commissioner Dave Russell said he was concerned when Heon brought the proposal to close the I-75 office to the board.

However, he said, he relies on Heon’s expertise, and the surging numbers at the Weeki Wachee welcome center bear her out.

It’s just as important, he said, to capture the tourists who travel U.S. 19 north and south and those who head east on State Road 50 either to the interstate or to the Suncoast Parkway.

Russell said the declining numbers at the eastside office do not justify keeping it open. “The money can be spent and personnel repositioned better to attract more tourists,” the commissioner said.

People will have a chance to discuss the matter when county commissioners meet at 9 a.m. Tuesday at the Hernando County Government Center, 20 North Main St. in downtown Brooksville.

To view the meeting agenda, visit http://hernando

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