Budget provides for visitor center

Capital lacks site to serve tourists

Staff WriterMay 16, 2008 

— When a busload of fourth-graders arrives in downtown Raleigh to tour state government institutions, their first stop is probably not the Capital Area Visitors Center, a title that promises more than it delivers.

The visitors center is not really a center at all. It's a reception desk hidden in a corner of the N.C. Museum of History's lobby.

"It's been so embarrassing for us when people walk in and say, 'Is this the visitor center?' " said Jackie Parrish, the center's acting director. "First they have to find us, and then they have to find a parking space. They are fit to be tied when they get in here."

If Gov. Mike Easley's budget proposal for 2009 is approved, downtown Raleigh could have a new 55,000-square-foot visitors center by 2011. The governor wants to allocate $40.4 million for the construction of a stand-alone center and a two-level underground parking garage.

The new center would be the second large development project undertaken by the state downtown.

The $109 million Green Square project calls for construction of a Department of Environment and Natural Resources building, an expansion of the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences and an underground parking facility.

The visitors center would be directly east of the Museum of History on what is now a paved parking lot for state workers. Among its amenities would be an outdoor plaza, classroom space, a drop-off point for school buses, and designated parking.

State Sen. Janet Cowell of Raleigh said the governor's request should come as no surprise to legislators, because the project has been in the works for years. The General Assembly allocated $250,000 in 2005 and $627,281 in 2007 toward the design of the new center.

If the $40.4 million makes it into the budget, bids could go out out at the beginning of next year. Construction is expected to take 24 months.

Cowell said the center will give visitors to Raleigh and North Carolina a nice first impression and will promote tourism beyond downtown.

"I think it's going to come down to money," Cowell said of its chances of getting funding.

The Capital Area Visitors Center relocated to the Museum of History in 2004. Last year, the center scheduled 367,800 people for tours of the history museum, the natural sciences museum, the Legislative Building and the Executive Mansion. About 60 percent of the visitors were students.

Until 2004, the center occupied a state-owned historic house at Lane and Blount streets.

Parrish said the four-story historic home had rooms large enough to seat 40 to 50 children. Before leaving for a tour, students would watch a video that helped put the tour in context.

The center stopped showing the video to students after moving to the Museum of History.

"There is nowhere here to accommodate children and video," Parrish said.

david.bracken@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4548

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