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Welcome Center Reopens

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Kathy Satterfield greets a visitor at the Capitol Region Visitor Center on State Street in Montpelier. Photo by J. Gregory Gerdel.

In an age when staycations for Vermonters emerged as a public health strategy, the reopening of the Capital Region Visitor Center at 134 State St. provides a resource that has tended to be under-utilized by locals.

Despite the prominent Vermont information plaza in the front yard of the neat, red brick building, a frequent comment by area residents who do walk through the door of the center is, “I didn’t realize this was here!” said Kathy Satterfield, who has been providing information about Vermont for nearly 20 years.

The center provides far more than a restroom and tourist brochures. Since its inception in the late 1990s, the facility has featured rotating displays of art, artisanal hand-crafts, and Vermont products. 

In accordance with the COVID-19 inspired lockdown, the Montpelier facility was closed to the public in mid-March 2020 and reopened June 1, 2021. “It has been wonderful to open up and see visitors again,” said Satterfield, who this week has begun, out of concern about the emerging Delta variant, to again wear a mask when facing the public.

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Satterfield enjoys the engagement that comes with the diversity of travelers who come from across the country and around the world. During the course of our interview, visitors to the center included Kris Larsen, manager of an organic farm in central Illinois.

 “There’s a group of farms in my area that collectively buy our fertilizing material from Vermont Compost every year,” Larsen said. In fact, his next stop was up the hill at Vermont Compost, before continuing his tour around the state to visit other farmers he knows.

Another visitor to the center during a relatively quiet mid-afternoon was a woman from Montpellier, France. After she left with a map and specific directions to her destination, Satterfield noted, “I have always been amazed at the number of visitors from Montpellier, France, who stop in here.”

While local residents do occasionally stop in the center, it is usually when they are hosting family or visitors from away and want to plan activities, Satterfield said. 

Services to Businesses and Destinations

Unlike the welcome and information centers along the federal interstate highways, the center sells featured products — on a cash basis. Recently, a display of Vermont maple products had a strong run of sales. Currently, the “Vermont Journal,” published by the 251 Club, is available at the center.  The journal is set up as a traveler’s diary in which aspiring 251ers can make notes about each town or gore they visit — and Satterfield or the other full-time staffer, Jan Stuart, can explain the best way to get there and what not to miss along the way. 

The 251 Club was first suggested in 1954 by  Dr. Arthur Wallace Peach, who envisioned a mechanism in which Vermonters and others could show that they had visited all 251 towns in the state.

The greatest change in the operations of the center in recent years has been due to smartphones, Satterfield said. 

“We used to spend a great deal of our time on the phone, providing directions, but most often helping people make lodging reservations,” she said. Historically the foliage season was the crunch time for finding lodging in Vermont. “We would be open until 8 in the evening helping people find a place to sleep.”

Visitors sometimes lack perspective on just how small and relatively rural Vermont is. Satterfield recalled a flustered traveler coming through the door and asking, “Are there any cities around here?”

Others know exactly what they are looking for. As we were talking, an older couple from New Hampshire wearing hiking boots came in. They had promised their Vermont grandchildren they would visit the tower in Hubbard Park, a not-to-miss favorite of the kids. Satterfield explained where they should park their car and how to find the trail that traverses the hillside up to the tower.

Statewide Brochure Distribution

Businesses and destinations display their brochures through the information centers on a paid subscription basis. The statewide service is managed from the Montpelier Center by Johanna (Jody) Petersen, known locally for her years as a DJ at The Point radio station.

Although eight of the state’s welcome and information centers kept restrooms open during the COVID-19 lockdown, all brochures were removed from the displays. Petersen’s project this year has been focused on getting the system back up and running. “About a third of the participants re-subscribed immediately when we re-opened the system, but I’ve been on the phone and emailing constantly to get the rest of them back in the system,” she said.

Part of the problem has been the difficulty for businesses staffing up after either being closed or cutting back on their operations. “I keep finding the longtime contact for a business is no longer there,” Petersen said before returning to her ongoing research.

The physical distribution of brochures and other display materials is managed under contract by Professional Posters and Distribution (PP&D), a private company based in Worcester, Vermont, that distributes brochures throughout Vermont, Petersen explained.