More than 20 years in the making, the Siskiyou Rest Area and Welcome Center near Exit 14 on Interstate 5 is set to open this spring.
About 60 percent of people who drive into Oregon come in by that route, according to Ashland Chamber of Commerce Marketing Director Katharine Cato.
“We welcome so many visitors through that door,” Cato said. “It will support better information, education and wayfinding. Wayfinding, not only for Ashland, but for our region, from the award-winning wineries to the rivers.”
Located at milepost 12, the welcome center will include brochures and year-round staff to answer travel-related questions. There also will be a rest stop with picnic tables and an Oregon State Police office. Travel Oregon is leasing the welcome center from the Oregon Department of Transportation.
The $12 million project was paid for with federal and state gas taxes and involved a fund transfer arrangement with the city of Medford.
The rest area will be completed first, with the welcome center opening a few weeks later. The project is scheduled to be complete and open by the end of April, according to Gary Leaming, ODOT public information officer.
The welcome center has been planned since a rest area farther south on the Siskiyou Pass grade shut down in 1997 following a fatal vehicle crash.
“ODOT closed the old rest area in 1997 for public safety, following a series of commercial truck crashes within the rest area, which was located on a steep Siskiyou Pass grade, roughly two miles south of the current location under construction,” according to the December edition of ODOT’S Moving Ahead publication.
The welcome center has faced opposition from neighbors in the adjacent Oak Knoll subdivision who were concerned the rest area would attract truck noise, transients and criminal activity. A transient-started fire destroyed 11 of their homes on Aug. 24, 2010, in Ashland’s worst fire in at least a century.
The city of Ashland struck an agreement with ODOT in 2011 to provide water and sewage service to the welcome center as long as it was equipped with surveillance cameras, an office for Oregon State Police and management personnel on the property to help deter transients, according to Mayor John Stromberg.
Cato said Travel Oregon will staff the welcome center year-round to help attract visitors to Ashland, which relies heavily on the tourism industry.
She said about 350,000 people visit Ashland annually and stay an average of three to four days.
“The Ashland visitor is resilient and highly educated,” Cato said. “They seek out those cultural amenities. They want to learn about the emerging wine scene and the culinary traveler really wants to learn about our food and the emerging culinary scene here. We have more highly educated visitors than the national average.”
Cato said the clients at the visitor center are from much farther away and those are the travelers Ashland wants to bring into the state.
“Yes, people look up information online, of course but the visitor center is such a huge touch point to be able to welcome them,” Cato said.
Travel Oregon Global Communications Director Linea Gagliano said travelers to Oregon spent $11.8 billion last year, which directly supported more than 112,000 jobs; $1.06 billion of that money went straight to the local economy of Southern Oregon, leading to more than 12,000 jobs for local residents.
She also said 32 percent of the people who stay overnight in Southern Oregon are from California.
“In fact, the average trip-spend for visitors to Oregon welcome centers who stay overnight in Oregon is $1,858 versus the average Oregon overnight trip-spend of $652,” said Gagliano, referring to a 2016/2017 Travel Oregon Welcome Center Survey and Dean Runyan Associates Oregon Travel Impact from 2017.
The contractor for the welcome center, Adroit Construction, has mostly finished the two buildings, one for the restrooms and one housing the welcome center. All that’s left to do is complete interiors and plant some landscaping, Leaming said. The facility will feature Cascadia-themed buildings, a style specific to the Pacific Northwest, Leaming said. It will also include the latest sustainable features, such as low-flow restroom plumbing, native trees and solar energy.
Travel Oregon is governed by the Oregon Tourism Commission and funded by a statewide transient lodging tax with the purpose of enhancing the tourism industry. Other partners that will work with the welcome center include Travel Southern Oregon and Travel Ashland.
Contact Daily Tidings reporter Caitlin Fowlkes at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-776-4496. Follow her on Twitter @cfowlkes6.