ATLANTIC CITY — Even during the busiest time of the year, there are rarely more than three or four cars in the parking lot for the Atlantic City Visitor Welcome Center, according to a shift manager at the Sunoco that shares the median.
“At most you’ll see maybe five,” said Scott Denney, 31. “But most of the day, there’s not really any cars there.”
Wednesday marks the last day for the uniquely designed, sparsely visited Atlantic City Visitor Welcome Center at the 3.5-mile marker on the Atlantic City Expressway that has drawn the eyes of passing motorists on their way to the resort since 2000.
The $3.5 million building, which sold T-shirts and E-ZPass, and provided tourist information — and only two small public bathrooms, for which they’ve been criticized — saw little foot traffic and had become, essentially, deserted.
Along the shoreline, however, the center’s peers with added services and amenities report strong visitation numbers and act as hubs for visitors.
“With visitors now accessing travel information through online social media and other mobile devices, and the availability of tourism information on the internet, we are adjusting to modern times and willing to meet visitors where they are,” said Larry Sieg, director of communications and marketing for the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, in a news release.
On Monday afternoon, the doors were locked and little more than a wall of brochures and a rack of T-shirts were visible inside. The neon waves behind the desk were still illuminated. And Tuesday morning, before learning it was closed, a driver approached hoping to purchase an E-ZPass. The Center is closed Monday and Tuesdays.
In 1998, as the building was being built, a report on the forthcoming center said the city hoped, under Sieg’s management, that they could lengthen the average stay of visitors through brochure distribution, promoting the resort’s many amenities.
Now, those hopes are being abandoned as the city looks to modernize the process of getting resort information to visitors. CRDA will, in turn, increase hours of operation and available services at the Boardwalk Information Center, where the two full-time employees will be relocated.
The one part-time employee will be used on an on-call basis.
That, plus “a more robust social and digital marketing presence should sufficiently meet the needs of Atlantic City visitors here in the Tourism District,” Sieg said.
In 1997, when plans for the center were announced, Sara Lindkrantz, then the vice president for tourism development at the Convention & Visitors Authority, said it would be staffed by four full-timers and two part-timers.
“This will not just be a distribution point for literature,” Lindkrantz said. “Ours is going to be distinctly different.”
A “conservative” estimate, she said at the time, is that 200-1,000 people would use the center daily.
Things did not go according to plan, but the demise of the Visitor Welcome Center wasn’t a foregone conclusion.
Two successful welcome centers in South Jersey say they’ve functioned as community information hubs, and more, and seen consistent usage from visitors to their shore towns as a result. In 2018, Cape May’s Welcome Center saw a little more than 94,000 visitors, and Ocean City’s Welcome Center sees more than 40,000 visitors every year.
Ocean City’s current Roy Gillian Welcome Center, built on the Route 52 bridge five years ago in the same location as the previous one, gives out brochures, directions and tide tables, and sells beach tags, play tickets and concert tickets.
“It’s a great destination for us,” said Michele Gillian, executive director of the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce.
They also have big bathrooms with plenty of stalls, something Gillian said they made sure to include. Plus, two piers below attract visitors to birdwatch, fish and crab. And the upper floor of the building houses Chamber of Commerce offices.
“In the design, we worked with the state on all those amenities to make sure the purpose of the Welcome Center was to welcome people, give them information about Ocean City, help provide information about businesses in Ocean City that could best accommodate them,” Gillian said. “And it really helps with the economy of Ocean City.”
Cape May’s Welcome Center, on Lafayette Street, “is more like Ocean City,” said Doreen Talley, marketing director for the Cape May Chamber of Commerce.
In its second location, and open for about 22 years, the Welcome Center doubles as a sort of transportation hub, Talley said. Commercial tour buses and the shuttle service for the Cape May-Lewes Ferry arrive there.
“We are multipurpose,” Talley said. “Not only do we promote the businesses in Cape May, but we also promote Cape May itself.”
That was the idea for Atlantic City’s center, as well.
The 3,000-square-foot Atlantic City Visitor Welcome Center — with its signature pointed canvas roof — was completed in 1999, after construction delays pushed it a year over schedule. The ultimate price tag was around $3.5 million. Then, in 2010, the center’s hours were reduced in the offseason to save money. Closing the center on slow days would save about $20,000, a spokeswoman said at the time.
Ocean City, meanwhile, has found continued utility in a year-round welcome center.
Gillian said the city has had a welcome center for at least 50 years, and they function as a “concierge for Ocean City,” booking hotels, recommending restaurants and more.
“They come in usually for their stop before they go to their rental or to the boardwalk or the beach or the bay. And they come in for information about the activities that are going on, the businesses that are here,” Gillian said. “And they also use the restrooms.”