MIAMI – For travelers a nice place to stretch your legs, get a cup of coffee and a snack, shop for a special souvenir and see what adventure might be waiting right down the road is ideal.
The City of Miami has now taken over operations as of Jan. 28th of the Travel Information Center at the entrance of the Will Rogers Turnpike located right before the Miami exit gate on I-44.
Director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau Amanda Davis gave an update on the progress of the undertaking at this week's Miami City Council session and in an interview prior to the meeting.
“We’ve spent really the last year to two years in negotiations,” Davis said. “We were able to come to an agreement and do the project.
"We are updating the name to the Northeast Oklahoma Travel Information Center, and we have a request to the state now to be able to make that official change.
"We will be developing a website and Facebook page to use for marketing. We want to continue to build on what the state has done for many years and do what’s best for all of our partners and the region, and always do what’s best for the city too.”
In an agreement between the City of Miami with the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority (OTA), Oklahoma Department of Tourism responsibilities for the center were laid out. The City of Miami took on the operations of the center after cuts in the state tourism budget threatened to close the facility.
Miami City Manager Dean Kruithof said city officials are developing a good relationship with OTA in regards to the operations of the center.
“With Ben's [Okla. State Representative and Miami’s City Attorney Ben Loring] help we had a very positive meeting with the director Tim Gatz of the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority," Kruithof said. “They're crafting a letter right now, which would be a letter of agreement, and in essence where the building is concerned their attitude is everything inside the sidewalk around the building is ours.
"They're going to take care of the asphalt and lighting around the building and also we've talked to them about helping us out with some of the signage, and they're very open to that.”
Kruithof said temporary signs could be placed to promote special events.
Other cities and groups such as Claremore, Bartlesville, and possibly Grove, Tulsa, Mayes County, the Grand Lake Association, the South Grand Lake Chamber and Vinita have come onboard or been approached in partnering with Miami to keep the welcome center open and operating.
Davis credited Inter-Tribal Council Chair and Shawnee Tribe Chief Ron Sparkman, with his support and efforts towards keeping the center operational.
“He’s been a really quiet, kind of behind the scenes leader in this,” Davis said. “He’s been such an encouragement.”
The center will soon be revamped with additional new retail merchandising, new brochures and for partner cities, banners and two large television monitors rotating photos of their local attractions. More information will also be available to tourists about each community's attractions, events and trips.
“So when you walk in and you’re a visitor you’re going to see these rolling photos that are going to show you places to visit and things to see,” Davis said. “We’re expanding the opportunities. In our industry, they teach us that every aspect of economic development starts with a visit, so no matter how you look at it, visitor development is such a huge part of what you do across the board as far as economy.”
The center was closed for two weeks to allow for inventory of merchandise and for the transfer to take place. The City of Miami is donating utilities of around $17,000 a year in investment, as well as taking on the employment of the staff.
“We had tons of resources on the City side that came out and worked on getting the transition done that week,” Davis said. “ We had to purchase new computers and all new software to get back up and going.”
The second week was used to get the new operations systems set up and running.
“We didn’t want it to go away, so we knew we had to step in,” Davis said.
The center has a strong revenue stream from retail sales of gifts, souvenirs, snacks and drinks and the hope is to improve and capitalize on this for self-support of the center's operations. Expectations are for retail sales to bring in around $45,000 through June.
Davis said within the City of Miami’s Tourism Department many of the activities and endeavors have to be revenue-producing ventures and the center falls in line with these goals. This also keeps funding from being taken from other important City of Miami projects and responsibilities such as street improvements.
“We bring in a substantial amount of money across the board, so the Travel Center is a new division for Tourism. Convention and Visitors Bureau is a division, Recreation, which just came out of Parks is a new division, and then, of course, we have the Coleman Theatre, so this division generates about $150,000 to $160,000,” Davis said. “With Dean’s leadership, tourism has become a business enterprise for the City of Miami, and what we’re doing out here is setting this up, so it’s a win/win for everybody.”
With City oversight, state budget restraints will no longer hamper the growth of the retail operations and sales at the center, according to Davis. The staff has been visiting with wholesalers to offer more specialized products unique to the area in the retail shop located in the center.
“The revenues come basically from postcards and snacks, bottled water, t-shirts, collectible pins, just random stuff,” Davis said. “ So we're working with a couple of different companies now to come up with different retail ideas such as jewelry, more Made in Oklahoma market items, and in the future get into the Dallas market to be able to go and get some product that we can bring back.”
The Travel Information Center is open 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week. Restroom facilities are accessible only from inside the center and open only during operational hours for safety and to avoid vandalism.
The center is also accessible for locals or Miami visitors from behind the Inter-Tribal Council building off Hwy. 69A. There is a parking lot with access to the center to shop or for gathering day or weekend trip information.
“On average, we have about 250,000 visitors that come here each year. The first week we were open I was out here and on a Sunday, Monday and Tuesday we had 1,400 people that came through the center in our off-peak time,” Davis said. “So, the traffic out here is crazy. The traffic is early this year – it’s been a little bit warmer.”
Miami's IT David Ballard will work to set up streaming for a weather monitor to offer travelers real-time weather updates.
Shanda Schertz stayed on through the transition as manager of the center and is now a City of Miami employee. The center also employees three part-time 12-month staff members, and three part-time seasonal peak time or seven-month staff members.
The staff offers information, directions to restaurants, hotels, gas stations, and attractions, and encourages visitors to stay and enjoy what Miami and the area have to offer.
“ For every dollar spent in tourism in your community, it turns over seven times,” Davis said. “If somebody is driving I-44, and they stop in here to use the restroom and they end up buying a t-shirt and they spend those new dollars, what happens is that money comes into the City, so we have that revenue.
"We pay the employee, they use their paycheck and go somewhere downtown and buy a gift, that business owner takes that money and goes and buys groceries, so that dollar travels – and on average that dollar will turn over seven times in our community. That money is staying in and being spent in our community, so it’s important to try and gain as many of those new dollars as we can.”
The acquisition of the Travel Information Center is seen as a huge benefit to Miami and the area’s tourism development efforts by Davis.
“I feel like everything has been great, a little bit of a transition,” Davis said. “We have some good PR going out and we're getting ready to launch some marketing and some rebranding for the center with our partners.
"It’s baby steps at this point, but I can look ahead and see the big picture. With the downtown Cultural and Arts District, the pieces of the puzzle are coming together.”