ORLEANS – On May 6, town officials, residents and Eversource representatives gathered at the utility's electrical substation at the corner of Route 6A and Eldredge Park Way. They were there to try and hash out a plan to better screen the substation with trees and plantings, but the building adjacent to the station also caught the eye of Select Board Chair Mefford Runyon.
The aging condition of the Orleans Chamber of Commerce's visitors center on Eldredge Park Way has led some local officials, including Runyon, to question how much longer the building can remain in use. At the select board's May 11 meeting, Runyon reported seeing water coming out of the building. The center's handicap accessible ramp, meanwhile, was wrapped in yellow tape, he said.
"The subject of that chamber of commerce building came up, and I think we should look at that too, because it looks like it's just about to collapse," he told the board.
But the chamber's executive director, Lisa Simundson, believes the center still has some more life to it.
"That is right in the heart of downtown," she said. "We get a lot of foot traffic in there, a ton actually."
Simundson was named executive director last year, but her first job with the chamber in 2015 came working part-time in the center's information booth.
"I got in and I absolutely loved it, because it was all about tourism," she said.
The visitors center is one of two operated by the chamber. The second is located in front of the chamber's offices in the community center on Main Street.
The center on Eldredge Park Way will open its doors for the season Memorial Day weekend and will be staffed on weekends through the middle of June. After that, the hope is to have the center open to visitors everyday until Columbus Day, staff allowing. A crew of four seasonal employees have been hired to staff the center this season, Simundson said.
The center is being pressure washed in preparation for its seasonal opening, and Simundson said work is also being done to finish repairs to the handicap access ramp. Longer term fixes including roof repairs and bathroom improvements are slated for after the close of the summer season, she said.
While the center needs work, Simundson said it remains a well-utilized asset for visitors. Its location off of Route 6A, near the off ramp from Route 6, makes it a go-to stop for tourists looking to pick up a map or find other information.
"Before you even get off Route 6, there are signs saying 'Visitor Information , next exit,'" she said. "So for anyone who is coming to Orleans and plans to visit for a while, hopefully overnight, we're their first stop."
Inside the center, visitors can pick up maps, brochures, local newspapers and other information. Perhaps equally important, the center offers visitors one-on-one contact with staff who are ready to answer any questions they might have about the town, whether it be about local history and landmarks or where to grab lunch. That personal touch goes a long way toward welcoming people to town, Simundson said.
"Not everybody uses their phones," she said. "A lot of people come to town and they want that paperwork in their hands, either maps or brochures. There's just a lot of inquiries on a lot of different subjects. When they get inside, they see how much we have in there. We have a ton of information."
But select board members expressed interest last week in thinking ahead to the Eldredge Park Way building's future needs. Runyon said relocating the building would allow more room for additional screening and other work near the substation. Eversource's removal of trees outside the substation in March, followed by their replacement with smaller trees, has been a subject of controversy among residents who want larger trees planted to better screen the station from the roadway.
Town Administrator John Kelly said a plan was in the works for a new chamber building in Depot Square, the financing for which fell through. Select board members voiced enthusiasm May 11 for possibly circling back to such a plan, especially in an area that would allow more parking to attract people downtown. Part of the town's economic development plan for the downtown area is to make it more walkable and pedestrian and bicycle friendly.
"Put that in the back of your minds if you're looking to replace that building because it's beyond its useful life," Kelly said.
But Simundson said the chamber has no plans as of now to relocate the center. She added that moving the center further downtown would be redundant given the presence of the other center at the chamber offices.
Simundson also said the existing location on Eldredge Park Way, which attracts about 9,000 people a year on average from all over the country and other parts of the world, plays a big part in the center's success.
"Personally I'd hate to see it close," she said. "To me, it's just a charming little building."
Email Ryan Bray at email@example.com