I-77 tourism center closed

A “closed” sign has been taped to the glass entrance door on the Ohio Travel Information Center at the I-77 rest stop north of Marietta.

Located in a room just inside the rest stop’s main building, the information center closed a week ago, and is one of 11 such centers the state plans to idle by the end of June.

That’s sad news for truck driver Larry Thomas, 52, from Tyler County, W.Va., who stopped at the local facility Wednesday morning.

“When I’m traveling I like to know where there are places to stay and what attractions are available in the area,” he said. “And if there’s an emergency it’s good to have someone at the rest stop who knows where to get help.”

Ohio Department of Transportation spokesman Steve Faulkner said the information centers at interstate rest stops are closing because travelers can obtain the same travel information on smart phones and other devices.

Thirty-four jobs will be eliminated when all 11 centers close, but those workers are being offered positions in other areas of ODOT.

Bill Miller, 75, and his wife Jackie, 68, of Hamilton, Ontario, were headed home when they stopped at the Washington County rest stop Wednesday. They, too, like the idea of having a manned information center.

“We use the facilities to obtain maps and find local accommodations,” Bill said. “There’s a lot of general information available, too.”

Jackie agreed, noting the couple makes little use of the Internet for travel plans.

“We’re unplugged,” she said. “We like to take the backroads-to visit little towns and meet the local people. And when you go into a rest stop it’s nice to be able to talk to a person face-to-face.”

On Wednesday the closed local information center still contained racks of 2012 maps, pamphlets, brochures and other publications urging travelers to visit a host of Ohio cities and attractions.

“We’ll still have some information and maps available out in the main hallway, but eventually there will be a kiosk with a keyboard in the center of the building where people can punch in a request for information,” said Jay Pawloski, who helps maintain the information centers for ODOT District 10.

He said restrooms, vending and other facilities at the interstate rest stops will remain open to the public.

Last fall Marietta-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Jeri Knowlton told Marietta City Council that the CVB had been approached about providing someone to help staff the travel information center.

But the CVB already has volunteer staff who operate a small information facility in the Kroger plaza along Pike Street.

“The I-77 rest stop is a few miles north of Marietta, and by the time people reach that location they’ve already passed Exit 1 into our area,” Knowlton said. “But information about Marietta and Washington County is distributed out of information centers all over the state. So closing the centers will have an impact as that’s less information we’ll get out to the public.”

She said it’s her understanding that tourism agencies are working with the state to come up with alternative ways to get information to tourists.

Although some travelers may be using the Internet to learn about areas they may want to visit, Knowlton said that information should be provided in a variety of ways, including through rest stop info centers, travel magazines and other forms of mass media, as well as online.

“All of these things work together to draw tourists. We can’t put all of our eggs in just one basket,” she said.

Patricia Barker, assistant director of tourism at the Ohio Tourism Division, said there are 104 rest stops on highways throughout the state.

“Only 11 of those along interstate highways have manned travel information centers,” she said. “But we are working with ODOT to continue offering visitor guides and brochures in those locations. And visitors can always call 1-800-BUCKEYE for tourism information.”