I've gotten a couple of emails and phone calls recently about the welcome center out on Williams Road, which is closed.
"Are we no longer welcoming folks to our fair city?" Concerned Reader Janice asked.
I called my friend Sam Wellborn, who is our area's long-serving Department of Transportation board member, and asked him what's going on out there.
Wellborn told me the welcome center closed in early December for extensive renovations and will reopen in April.
It's part of a $20 million or so statewide program to upgrade eight of the state's nine welcome centers (the ninth is brand new, over around Savannah). Then the DOT will address the state's 21 rest areas, which have fewer amenities but still offer motorists a place to pull off and rest and use the restrooms.
A couple of years ago, Wellborn said, the DOT board's Gateways Committee decided to renovate all of the state's welcome centers and rest areas. Many if not most were in bad shape. They had leaky roofs, outdated plumbing and light fixtures, potholes in the parking lots, all that kind of stuff.
The good news? No tax money is being used, Wellborn said. I'm sure you have
noticed when you're approaching an off-ramp on the interstate that there are those signs telling you which gas stations, convenience stores, hotels and restaurants are there? Well, those businesses pay to have their logos on those signs, which is why the DOT calls it the Logo Fund. That's what is paying for all the improvements and also for landscaping improvements along the roadsides.
The local project is paired with the West Point, Ga., welcome center under one contract, so it's hard to tell exactly how much is being spent in one place or the other. But the contract for the two is $1.7 million, and Wellborn said he would guess that $750,000 to $800,000 of that is being spent out on Williams Road. West Point is costing a little more because it's getting a completely repaved parking lot.
When the welcome center reopens in April, it will have a new roof, all new plumbing and light fixtures, repaired potholes in the parking lot, repairs to exterior masonry, pressure-washed sidewalks and all new landscaping. It will also have a new family restroom added. (I love my family, but I'd just as soon go to the restroom alone. Call me old-fashioned.)
How old is the welcome center on Williams Road, you ask?
"I can't remember exactly when it opened, but I remember that (former governor) Zell Miller came down for the ribbon cutting," Wellborn said. "It was before I was on the DOT board."
For a little context, Wellborn is beginning his 25th year on the DOT board, which makes him the longest-serving board member in the history of the board.
Right now, the DOT is in the midst of repairing the welcome stations. All of them should be done sometime this year, and then they will start work on the 21 rest areas. "In all, it's about a three-year process," Wellborn said.
So no, Concerned Readers, we're not getting out of the welcoming business, we're just making our welcome center more welcoming. And it's not costing us a cent. (Unless you own one of those aforementioned businesses, in which case we'll just say "thanks.")
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