Jacqueline Smith: ‘Bathroom penny pinchers’ no more, welcome to Connecticut
All Kathy Rupcic really wanted was a map.
She and her husband Peter were on a “fairly easy” road trip from their Hamilton home in the Ontario province of Canada, and had just spent three days in the Catskills. They were heading to an Airbnb in Bridgeport when they stopped to get their bearings at the Welcome Center on Interstate-84 in Danbury, just minutes over the border with New York.
They were looking forward to Pleasure Beach in Bridgeport.“We want the ocean,” Kathy said affably. “It’s summer.”
But there was no map they could take with them — the Tourist Information Center was closed. I peeked through the locked glass doors; the room was empty, not one brochure on the desk. This was Wednesday, around 11 a.m., the week after the Fourth of July prime vacation time.
Although the seven Welcome Centers and Rest Areas that had been closed loinger than they were open for nearly three years finally re-opened on July 1 — hallelujah! — not all Tourist Information Centers are staffed yet.
What a lost opportunity. A glance at the brochure rack in front of the closed doors shows a lack of attention. Among the 16 different brochures was this: “Now hiring — New York Air National Guard.” Really, Connecticut? Is that a way to promote our state?
Fortunately, the rack also held colorful brochures for Quassy Amusement Park in Middlebury, the Harriet Beecher Stowe Museum in Hartford, the Discovery and Barnum museums in Bridgeport, and Music Mountain in Falls Village, among a few others. But it was as though nothing worth seeing existed in western or southwestern Connecticut.
We can do much better.
While the state Department of Transportation maintains the rest areas, the Department of Economic and Community Development is responsible for the Tourist Information Center within the buildings. Jim Watson, a DECD spokesman, told Christine Stuart of CTNewsJunkie.com this week, that “Now that funding has been reallocated, we are conducting a thorough assessment to determine what exactly is needed, including staffing, to get them up and running as quickly as possible.”
“As quickly as possible” translates to having “a few of them open in the next 30 days.” Summer will practically be over by then. Surely a department with “economic” in its title could move a bit faster. They could, and should, ask tourism and arts groups for help.
I’ll pause from chiding the slow-moving state agency for now and take a moment to toast the re-opening of the rest areas and Welcome Centers in Connecticut.
It’s been a mission for a while now. Last August my column “When a Welcome Center is anything but” contrasted the fun rest area in New York just past the border with Pennsylvania with Connecticut’s don’t-even-think-about-stopping-here message.
You might remember my “Welcome to land of bathroom penny pinchers” column on March 29 in which I said it was foolhardy to close the Welcome Centers from 3:30 p.m. to 8:30 a.m. — and advertise the closed hours on signs along the highways.
“The state with the highest per capita income in the country can’t afford to keep all of its rest areas open on the interstates. How embarrassing is that?”
That struck a chord with many readers who emailed me to share horror stories or offer suggestions. The result was “Readers speak on ‘disgusting’ Welcome Centers.”
“Gov. Ned Lamont, you need to hear this: Lots of people are embarrassed to say they live in Connecticut. ... They are embarrassed about the decidedly unwelcome highway Welcome Centers that are closed more than they are open. It stinks, they say. Literally.”
OK, we weren’t the only ones raising a ruckus about the porta-potty image we were giving visitors. The Blue Ribbon Panel on Tourism, created by House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, included the recommendation to reopen the Welcome Centers in its Feb. 15 report. Then Gov.-elect Ned Lamont’s Arts, Culture and Tourism policy committee made that recommendation in December. The General Assembly was receptive with funding.
I asked Lamont’s Senior Advisor Colleen Flanagan Johnson whether the columns helped influence the reopening of the centers.
“Safe to say that he (Lamont) heard about opening the Rest Areas/Welcome Centers from A LOT of people, yourself included,” she said. I’ll take that.
And so take a bow, readers who emailed and were mentioned in the “readers speak” column: Paul W. Looney of North Haven, Harold Newman of New Fairfield, Mike McGorty of Brookfield, Jen Tucci of Guilford, Bill Carbone of Madison, John Apple of New Fairfield, Mike Zilinek of Newtown, and Charlene and Angelo Dalessio of Stratford.
You were a part of making it happen.
Stay a while
Now we’ve got to make sure the Tourist Information Centers get running while summer travelers are on the road.
The Welcome Center on eastbound I-84 in Danbury is small, but charming. No one need resort to a porta-potty anymore (though they were still there as of Wednesday) with rest rooms inside the always-open center. Vending machines for drinks and snacks were well stocked.
Outside, daylilies and other flowers bloomed. Meticulously groomed grassy grounds with picnic tables and grills offered respite for travelers’ first step into New England.
Though Kathy and Peter Rupcic were disappointed they couldn’t find a map, they seemed happy to be in Connecticut and heading for the shore. Let’s be sure visitors like them can find out about all there is to do and see in our beautiful state. And stay a while.
Jacqueline Smith’s columns appear Fridays in Hearst Connecticut Media’s eight daily newspapers. She is the editorial page editor for The News-Times and The Norwalk Hour. Email her at email@example.com