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October 19, 2007

Press Release: Martinsville Bulletin

Friday, October 19, 2007

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

NASCAR fans - or anyone else, for that matter - can race uptown to find out about attractions in Henry County and Martinsville.

The visitor center at the Southern Virginia Artisan Center on West Church Street, across from Martinsville's Municipal Building, is now open. It is in the artisan center's gallery, which sells art and crafts made by area residents.
It is the first center of its kind in the area, officials have said.

The center's left wall is full of brochures about attractions across Virginia and northern North Carolina. The brochures are organized in terms of the region of the state they are in, such as Henry County-Martinsville, elsewhere in southern Virginia, the Shenandoah Valley, Blue Ridge Highlands, Tidewater and central Virginia.

A flat-screen television provides news and weather information to visitors. Plans are to install a computer that will allow visitors to check their e-mail, said David Rotenizer, director of tourism for the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corp. (EDC).

The visitor center is a joint venture of Patrick Henry Community College, which operates the artisan center, and the EDC. It is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

Pat McCain, an EDC associate, staffs the visitor center Tuesday through Saturday to answer questions from tourists. On Mondays, a college staff member is stationed at the visitor center, Rotenizer said.

McCain and artisan center staff are cross-trained to answer questions about both local tourist attractions and art for sale in the gallery, he said.

The front window of the artisan/visitor center currently has a display about the area's rivers and trails. Rotenizer said the display will change periodically but will focus on "things to see and do in our area."

Many tourists get information from the Internet about places they plan to visit, yet a lot of people visit places on the spur of the moment and realize they need information once they get there, said Rotenizer, explaining the need for a visitor center.

He said that people may come to Henry County and Martinsville to visit one specific attraction, such as the speedway, Piedmont Arts Association or the Virginia Museum of Natural History. But after they stop by the visitor center and learn about the various area attractions, they may decide to stay a day or two longer, he added.

The longer they stay, the more they boost the local economy by eating in restaurants, shopping in stores and spending the night in motels, economic developers have said.

Rotenizer said some NASCAR fans from elsewhere who are in town longer than just on race day remain close to the speedway, yet many venture out into the community to see the sights.

"People want to wander around and see what's going on," he said. "We (the visitor center) have to let them know what's here, what we have to offer."
McCain and Rotenizer said area residents also can stop by the visitor center and find out about local attractions they may not have ever visited.

Since the center began keeping records of visitors in August, about 300 people have stopped by. Visitors are asked to sign a registration book stating their names, where they are from and what prompted them to visit Henry County and Martinsville.

People whose names were in the book Thursday were from as far as Pennsylvania and South Carolina.

McCain said she likes talking with visitors about places they have been and things they have seen.

"I'm a people person," she said, "and you never know who's going to walk in and enlighten you."

Efforts are under way to get the visitor center certified by the Virginia Tourism Corp. That would put the center on state-issued road maps and enable highway signs pointing the way to the center to be placed around Henry County and Martinsville, according to Rotenizer.

Receiving certification involves displaying brochures from more than 50 other visitor centers across Virginia, which the local center already does.

Other centers are displaying Henry County-Martinsville brochures, "which helps us get the word out" statewide about area attractions, said Rotenizer.
State-certified visitor centers also must be open seven days a week. Rotenizer said PHCC and EDC officials are trying to figure out a way to have the local center open on Sundays.

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