Welcome Center promotes Pennsylvania

PAT FRIDGEN
The staff at the I-81 North Welcome Center are the first friendly faces visitors to Pennsylvania will see. Robert Bell, Linda Knepper, Linda Hoover and Kathy Holtry provide tourist information at the Greencastle facility. They are employed by PennDOT. Not pictured: Nina Mellott.

The Welcome Center on I-81 North near Exit 1 may be just a blur to most local residents, but it is worth a stop on the next trip home from Maryland.  Officially the Keystone Welcome Center at Dutch Country, the busy facility is often the first introduction to Pennsylvania for vacationers and people on their way through Greencastle for other business.

The staff at the welcome center has an ulterior motive.

"Our goal is to keep people in Pennsylvania as long as possible. We want them to spend their money here," said Linda Hoover, Tourist Information Supervisor.

She and four other employees greet travelers from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. seven days a week. They provide assistance with directions, maps, and suggestions on things to do and places to see across the state. The place is a popular stop for people who understand its services. In April the staff made 907 hotel reservations for visitors.

"We are one of the busiest welcome centers in the state," said Hoover.

She and her co-workers are well-versed in what Pennsylvania has to offer. They are full of information about Gettysburg, Lancaster and Hershey, the main destinations of travelers. They have also learned about the less-traveled areas and tell visitors about other options to enhance their trip. While the people often stop in to use the restrooms in the lobby and grab a coupon booklet and brochures, sometimes they will linger for as long as 45 minutes.

"We have had two lines to the door to make reservations," she commented. "Tourism is the number 2 industry in the state."

Though the visitors tend to be from faraway places, it is also a valuable stop for local residents. Hoover encouraged them to stop in too. Business is up in that regard, due to the economy. Families are taking day trips instead of long vacations. "People who come in are blown away by what they can do around here," she said.

The center is stocked with free pamphlets touting activities and events. Hoover invited everyone to come in to take some.

National Tourism Week

The center is participating in National Tourism Week, May 8-16. Hoover contacted area agencies and businesses to bring in materials. The Greencastle-Antrim Chamber of Commerce and Franklin County Visitors Bureau set up tables and displays. Hotels and restaurants are promoting their services.  Special interest groups are also on hand to add variety for guests. Rhonda Gehr from Fort Loudon set up a POW-MIA display for the week. A Greencastle Boy Scout group is serving snacks by donation at certain times and helping out with yard cleanup. Several PA Past Players will be on site from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday to entertain in the roles of Thaddeus Stevens and other Civil War characters.

Hoover has seen the week grow in its outreach through the years.

On an afternoon, the parking lot was the scene of constant movement. People walked in and out of the welcome center, ate at the outdoor picnic tables, and walked their pets. The tractor trailers lined up nearest the interstate, the automobiles and pickups were close to the building. In tow were a canoe, cartop carrier, small yacht.

If the travelers asked questions about Pennsylvania, they received ready answers about every region: Penn Wilds, Great Lakes, Dutch Country Roads, Alleghenies, Upstate Laurel Highlands, Pittsburgh Area, Philadelphia Area, Lehigh Valley and Susquehanna Valley. They left one of the gateways to the state, hopefully to spend plenty of time and money during their journey.