S.P. Welcome Center Seeks Funding
The Southern Pines Welcome Center may have to pull out of its space at the restored downtown train depot if no benefactor can be found to cover monthly expenses.
The center’s only revenue comes from visitors kind enough to plunk money in a donation jar.
“It’s a nominal income,” said Eileen Malan, a real estate agent and one of several volunteers from the Southern Pines Civic Club who staff the center.
Welcome to Southern Pines Inc., the nonprofit organization that runs the center, recently asked the Town Council to amend its lease and pay electricity, telephone and water and sewer charges that average about $250 per month. The town waived monthly rent of $350 in 2008, one year after the center opened.
Council members agreed at their monthly agenda meeting last Wednesday to cover the water and sewer charges, mainly because the town already maintains the center’s restrooms, which are the only public restrooms in downtown Southern Pines. But the council declined to cover anything else.
“I don’t necessarily have a problem with the town providing rent-free space to the welcome center,” Council-man Mike Fields said Thursday. “However, I don’t think the town should provide tax dollars to supplement their operating funds.”
Jeffrey Sheer, president of Welcome to Southern Pines, said the power was cut off Thursday.
“The lights are off, so we’re in the dark,” Sheer said. “My main concern is to keep the doors open and the lights on. The weather is beautiful now, so we can just prop open the doors. It may become problematic when the temperature goes up.”
The center is open Thursday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Although Sheer was disappointed with the council’s decision, he doesn’t have “an ax to grind with anybody.”
“I don’t have an agenda trying to get the town to pay for it,” he said. “It just makes more sense to me for the town to pay for it. I don’t think they’re against having a welcome center. I just don’t think they want to help pay for it. Maybe some individual will step up to the plate.”
Fields said he would feel better about fully supporting the center’s request if the town were in a better financial situation.
“But I don’t want to set a precedent for even more nonprofits to begin seeking funding from the town and using the rationale that their nonprofit benefits the town,” he said. “All nonprofits in Southern Pines, not to mention Moore County as a whole, serve vital functions and all contribute to the betterment of the community.”
Sheer said before the agenda meeting that he felt it would be “very short-sighted not to go the extra mile” to keep the center open and “build on its success.”
“This place is not just a welcome center,” he said, “it’s a cultural history museum as well.”
The center features mementos and other items depicting the town’s 124-year history. The center also has up-to-date brochures and handouts about lodging, entertainment, restaurants and contemporary attractions.
“I try to put myself in the place of the visitor,” Sheer said. “When I travel, if I can learn a little bit of history about the town I am visiting, I feel a little closer to it. It comes alive to me.
“Southern Pines is a fascinating little town with a very interesting history. If visitors have quick access to great information they’ll be more inclined to spend their money here, tell their friends about it and come back.”
Sheer noted that the center, which has operated since its inception at little cost to taxpayers, welcomes 400 to 500 visitors from around the world every month.
“It’s very cool to look through the guest book. Just last week we had people here from Germany, Canada and several U.S. states,” he said.
The center made it through 2010, thanks mainly to a $1,000 donation from the Southern Pines Business Association, as well as donations from the civic club and private individuals.
“That floated our boat. That kept us going,” Sheer said. “I’ve recently paid the utilities out of my pocket. I can’t keep doing that.”
The Town Council briefly discussed the issue at its March 28 work session, which was attended by Malan and fellow civic club member Blanche Woodruff.
“The welcome center is a real public relations asset for this town,” Woodruff told the council. “It is an integral part of downtown Southern Pines.”
Town Manager Reagan Parsons said Thursday that the town has “great appreciation for the amount of volunteer hours that have gone into running the center.”
Mayor Mike Haney said the number of annual visitors alone validated “how important” the center has become.
“When it was first proposed, no one envisioned it being this successful,” Haney said.
Still, council members expressed concern last month that the request could be the next step in the town eventually running the center.
“I don’t anticipate that happening,” Sheer said Wednes-day.
Council members directed town staff to investigate welcome center funding in Pinehurst so they could make a well-informed decision.
The village of Pinehurst pays monthly rent of $500 for its small space in the front of the Sandhills Woman’s Exchange. It also has $1,000 budgeted in the current fiscal year for other operational expenses.
Like its Southern Pines cousin, the Pinehurst center welcomes visitors from across the country and around the world.
“We are off the beaten path and yet people are finding us,” said Ann Hughes, the center’s volunteer coordinator. “We’ve had over 1,000 visitors since opening last year. This is the perfect spot.”
Sheer believes the same can be said for the Southern Pines location.
“The train station is where people have been welcomed to Southern Pines since day one,” he said.
And Sheer uses adjectives such as “fantastic” and “superb” to describe past support from the town of Southern Pines.
“A neat town deserves a neat welcome center,” he said. “We’re not talking about a heck of a lot of money here.”
Contact Ted M. Natt Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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