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Hernando plans to close I-75 visitor center, saying money can be better spent

BROOKSVILLE — For tens of thousands of cars driving south Hernando County on Interstate 75 every month, a big billboard announcing "Tails," as in mermaids, and "Trails," as in biking and nature trails, also lets motorists know that once they exit at State Road 50, tourism information is available.

But not enough people are stopping.

Today, the county's tourism coordinator, Tammy Heon, will recommend to the County Commission that the county close the I-75 visitor center and use the money on other marketing and advertising options.

"It's a difficult choice. I built that place,'' Heon said. "But it's a business decision based on dollars and cents.''

The Tourist Development Council recently ratified Heon's budget proposal, which eliminates the office on Cortez Boulevard near the I-75 interchange.

The visitor center that opened at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park last year will remain open, however.

From July 1 last year through April of this year, the Weeki Wachee office has seen 20,000 visitors. By comparison, the I-75 location sees fewer than 4,000 a year.

"It's tough to schedule two full-time employees to two offices seven days a week,'' Heon said, noting that volunteers and an employee through the workforce board fill in the gaps. Her revenue annually to keep the operation going is $376,000.

The office keeps track of visitors who stay and become tourists, and Heon had hoped that those numbers would be higher at this point.

"I'm fond of saying we give out a lot of maps and we buy a lot of toilet paper," but don't have the tourism impact that other approaches could ensure, she said.

Heon instead would like to spend the money to develop "a proper visitor's guide" that would provide better information about the county. That would require one of the full-time staff members to be on the road selling advertising, she said.

"We also really want to ramp up our social media campaign,'' she said.

Closing the I-75 office means that Heon will have to relocate her office. The interim plan is to be at Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport. That works well because Heon is working closely with the airport and economic development staff there on several projects, she said.

Despite the move, Heon said she doesn't want businesses to think there will no longer be tourism information available on the east side of the county. She said she is working on several projects to promote the area and also intends to leave plenty of the county brochures at east-side businesses.

"We're not abandoning the east side,'' she said. "Absolutely that is not the case.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

Hernando plans to close I-75 visitor center, saying money can be better spent 05/26/14 [Last modified: Monday, May 26, 2014 7:26pm]
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