Visitor center in Eagle could shift away from retail | VailDaily.com

Visitor center in Eagle could shift away from retail

Visitor center's price tag wearing out its welcome with the town

EAGLE — The town wants out of the retail business and says the visitor center will drop retail sales by the end of this year. But local artisans who sell their wares there say it’s an important part of their businesses.

The Eagle Town Board says it would like the visitor center to remain open seven days a week.

“We’re going to do everything we can to make sure that happens,” Eagle Town Manager Brandy Reitter said.

Another concern is the Eagle County Historical Society’s museum. It operates in the spring, summer and fall, and sees significantly more people when the visitor center is open, significantly fewer when it isn’t, said Kathy Heicher, the president of the Historical Society.

The town wants to refocus the visitor center on promoting and informing people about the town.

Local artists, artisans

The visitor center retail sales focus on local artisans such as photographer Steve Taylor and seamstress Theresa Hauser, and local gifts like chocolate through Colorado Candy and Luark Honey from the Eagle County ranching family.

“People traveling across the nation say this is the best rest stop they’ve ever stopped in. The museum is there. The river rolls past. Even tour buses stopped,” Taylor said. “People shop there for local gifts.”

Taylor worked in the visitor center for nine years and sells his Natures Details photos there. He’s one of more than a dozen local artists and artisans whose work is available there. If he cannot sell his photos at the visitor center, it’s not a matter of life and death, but he’ll feel it, he said.

“It’s not going to cost me my business, but it’s going to cost me a lot of money,” Taylor said.

Colorado’s Department of Transportation ruled that the visitor center didn’t meet the criteria for a rest area and removed the rest area signs along I-70 in July 2017, Taylor recalled. Visitor numbers plummeted by half, from 4,412 in July 2017 to 2,286 in July 2018. Visitor numbers peaked in 2016 at 40,059, according to the town’s data.

The visitor center and museum signs along I-70 didn’t change, and CDOT added Wi-Fi and bathroom signs to the existing sign to help with visitation.

73% funding cut

Like most towns, Eagle is watching every dime. The town’s 2020 budget proposes cutting visitor center funding 73% from $157,000 to $42,000, saying the money would be better spent on police or buildings and grounds.

“The town has supported the information center for several years. The current focus is retail and the town is proposing to shift away from the retail and more toward marketing and tourism as a core function. In 2020, the town will no longer sell retail items and goods at the information center,” says the town’s 2020 budget proposal.

Bookkeeping is also a burden on the town’s finance department.

Governor Romer cut the ribbon

When it launched in 1991, the region was still in the throes of the oil industry crash of the 1980s. Several agencies and governments pitched in to support the visitor center, hoping tourist dollars would follow.

The Eagle County Historical Society’s museum was part of the overall project from the outset.

“The structure, when completed, will become the permanent regional information center and provide additional museum space,” opined the Eagle Valley Enterprise.

Colorado Gov. Roy Romer was among the hundreds attending the June 19, 1991, grand opening. Colorado’s Department of Local Affairs praised it as “a model for developing information center projects,” reported the Eagle Valley Enterprise.

All in, it cost $248,000 to build. Among the major contributors: Eagle kicked in $43,000, Eagle County $25,000 and the state $75,000 through an energy impact assistance grant, a program to help communities recover from the oil industry crash.

The U.S. Forest Service helped create interpretive displays about regional fish, wildlife and public recreation opportunities. Of the 150 projects that the Forest Service was part of at the time, it ranked the Eagle Visitor Center in the top three. Local Forest Service staffers Bill Johnson and Mike Spencer were honored for their work on the center.

Around the year 2000, the Eagle Valley Chamber of Commerce operated out of and ran the visitor center. The focus shifted from information and education to retail sales to drive revenue to pay the chamber’s staff.

After a decade or so, the chamber’s new leadership withdrew from operating the visitor center. Over the years, the other partner agencies and governments fell away, leaving Eagle to pick up the entire funding tab.

In budget discussions earlier this month, the Town Board said it’s time to refocus the visitors and information center away from retail and back onto information and promotion.

The Town Board is scheduled to vote on the 2020 budget during its Dec. 10 meeting.