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A welcome change to welcome centers?

By MARK ALBRIGHT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 3, 2003

As welcome centers go, the vintage 1970s A-frame on Ulmerton Road is not exactly a welcome site for visitors.

Tourists entering Pinellas County from the Howard Frankland Bridge who stop for directions or a brochure discover that it's hard to get back to Interstate 275. The center's well water is on the murky side. But it's a lot better than a few years ago when the bathroom plumbing was fed by a garden hose.

"Frankly, I'd like to bomb the place," said Carole Ketterhagen, director of the St. Petersburg Clearwater Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. "It doesn't project the image we'd like, and the purpose of a welcome center has changed."

The center welcomes only 90,000 of the 4.4-million annual overnight visitors to Pinellas. And far more of them arrive knowing where they will spend the night these days than when the center was built by the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce more than 30 years ago to offer advice, including how to find a last-minute room. The site was chosen when I-275 ended at Ulmerton Road.

It's so dated, "I almost expected it to be a tepee," said Russ Sloan, president and chief executive of the chamber, which loses too much money running the place to rebuild it.

The center tops the agenda of a visitors bureau task force studying how to unify services at 20 tourist welcome centers run by 14 chambers in Pinellas.

The task force is looking at creating a network promoting the entire county rather than chamber members in each city. One emphasis is centers at key county gateways such as I-275.

The group is investigating whether to renovate the Ulmerton Road center or move it to a better spot. The state plans to add a southbound entrance from Ulmerton to I-275 in 2004. That would make it easier for welcome center visitors to get back to the interstate. Or a new center might be suggested closer to the bridge.

Staffers at the center on Ulmerton joke that the old A-frame should be moved to Heritage Park in Largo, the county's collection of historic structures.

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