In the infancy of 2006, Ed Griesel suggested that a group of Elkins business people and merchants get together and brainstorm ideas as to how the Elkins railroad depot might be used to serve the public after the Elkins-Randolph County Chamber of Commerce and the Randolph County Convention and Visitor's Bureau became separate entities, went their separate ways and moved out of the depot.
Being a person of progressive thinking, Griesel suggested the group consider using the city's premier landmark building as a welcoming center. The group decided to do just that. It is plausible, I believe, to think that those involved could not have imagined how important that idea and the establishment of what is now the Elkins Depot Welcome Center would become to the city of Elkins and surrounding area.
That success, however, would not have been possible without the volunteer staff that has spent countless hours at the depot welcoming our visitors, giving out information regarding services available in town and the local area, businesses located in and around Elkins, driving instructions to our many points of interest and answering a multitude of questions.
All of these services have been provided, for the most part, by unpaid volunteers who have an undying interest in seeing our community's tourism industry continue to flourish along with the desire to make sure that those who come to visit enjoy their stay to the fullest.
According to Griesel, who became president of the center's board of directors, keeping the doors open has been a monumental challenge. Money has been hard to come by and scarce.
For the first year or so, the center operated on donations. The only source of operating funds came from fundraising events which took many more hours of volunteers' time. For the past three years, the center has received funds from the city and county that permitted the hiring of one part-time staff member assisted by members of AmeriCorps whose salary is paid by AmeriCorps and the welcome center.
"I don't think people in the city of Elkins really understand or appreciate what the welcome center does for the community," Griesel said. "Being centrally located, it is a natural, almost gravitational place for visitors to come to obtain information about the city, county and region. At the outset, the largest number of our visitors came on buses to ride the excursion trains and to attend the American Mountain Theater. While that number continues to increase, so does the number of smaller groups and families on two- and three-day weekend vacations. The latter number has grown significantly over the past two years.
"While we provide a great deal of information to the bus groups, who have a pre-planned itinerary and been briefed on the things to see and do in the area, we are a prime source of information for those smaller groups and families that come with only a broad overview of what the area has to offer in the way of recreational venues," Griesel said. "We supply them with the details they need to make their stay an enjoyable and memorable one - one that will make them want to return."
"Since opening its doors to the public in April 2006, the center has become an active and integral part of the Elkins community," said Anne Beardslee, secretary of the center's board of directors. "The primary goal of the center has always been to serve the people visiting Elkins.
"We have greeted and welcomed more than 120,000 guests, given out more than 175,000 brochures, helped with countless hotel/motel reservations and seen to providing, to all who needed it, information regarding just about every aspect of our community and region," Beardslee said. "As operations in the railyard continue to expand, the Welcome Center becomes even more important to the area's success."
In addition to helping visitors with their travel, overnight accommodations and restaurant information, the center has contributed to the community in many other ways including providing a sound system for the depot, purchased a large tent for the Town Square that's used as a shelter for entertainers, partnered with the Elkins Junior Women's Club to purchase benches for the Town Square, sponsored and coordinated the Ramps and Rail Festival the past two years, contributed to the kiosk that's soon to be placed at the depot and placed tourist information brochures in the Welcome Center.
All the activities in which the center has been involved are too numerous to mention here but also include sponsoring three free public concerts at the Town Square, working with local businesses and agencies to continually provide Newcomer Welcome Packs to all those moving into the Elkins area, conducted two hospitality training sessions for those individuals and businesses interested in enhancing their employees' people skills, hosting appreciation events for the center's volunteers, contributed to the Elkins Christmas Parade and worked aggressively toward obtaining money for this year's Christmas lights in the Town Square that were enjoyed by hundreds of local residents and visitors.
While the center may not be a great visible revenue producer for the city, it is without question one place where visitors come to obtain information about the city and area bringing additional business to local merchants and services. During the height of the tourist season, the center remains open seven days a week making information easily obtainable.
This service would not otherwise be available if it were not for the dedicated staff of volunteers who give so generously of their time in the interest of the economic growth of our community and the promotion of its cultural and historical heritage.
For their dedication and unselfish efforts toward the continuing goal of the Depot Welcome Center, the members of the center's staff and the organization have been chosen as Elkins' volunteer organization for 2010.
National Guard and reserve members have until Jan. 17 to nominate their supportive employers for the 2011 Secretary of Defense Employer Support Freedom Award. Guard and reserve family members can also nominate their service member's employer during this nomination season. The award is the U.S. government's highest honor given to employers for their outstanding support of employees serving in the guard and reserve. Nearly half of the U.S. military is comprised of the guard and reserve, making the role of U.S. employers support of employees in the military increasingly important.
Nominations may be submitted online at www.FreedomAward.mil. The names of all nominated employers will be announced in the spring and the 15 Freedom Award recipients will be announced in early summer.
The Freedom Award was instituted in 1996 under the auspices of Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR), a Department of Defense agency, to recognize exceptional support of guard and reserve members from the employer community.
In the past 15 years, 145 employers from across the nation have received this prestigious award. Established in 1972, ESGR's mission is to develop and promote employer support for guard and reserve service by advocating relevant initiatives, recognizing outstanding support, increasing awareness of applicable laws and resolving conflict between employers and service members.
For questions regarding the Freedom Award nomination process, visit www.FreedomAward.mil or call Maj. Melissa Phillips, ESGR Public Affairs, at 703-696-1171, ext. 519, or e-mail at ESGR-PA@osd.mil.