In 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 it was vacated.
Being a person of progressive thinking, Griesel suggested the group consider using the city's premier landmark building as a welcome center.
The group decided to do just that. It is plausible 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.
In 2012, more than 41,000 people passed through the Elkins Depot Welcome Center.
That success, however, would not have been possible without the volunteers and staff that have 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 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 is 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. Thankfully, for the past five years, the center has received funds from the city and county that permitted the hiring of one part-time staff member and an AmeriCorps volunteer.
"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 225,000 guests, given out more than 340,000 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 five years, contributed to the kiosk that's placed at the depot and placed tourist information brochures in the Welcome Center. They also host a local history exhibit entitled "The Town That Industry Built," talking about Elkins and its railroad history.
All the activities in which the center has been involved are too numerous to mention here but also include sponsoring two free public concerts at Town Square each summer, conducted 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 Christmas lights in the Town Square that are 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 is open seven days a week making information easily obtainable, closed Tuesday and Wednesday during the winter.
This service would not otherwise be available if it were not for the dedicated staff and 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. In 2012, more than 41,000 people passed through the Elkins Depot Welcome Center.
"Folks from all over have heard that Elkins has a friendly, welcoming atmosphere," said Jodi Burnsworth, AmeriCorps at the Welcome Center. "Right now we are in need of more volunteers to impart this welcome upon visitors to Elkins." The Elkins Depot Welcome Center is open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. "We are looking for people who have a day or a half day a week, or someone who can give us time a few days a month," said Burnsworth.
Volunteers donate time greeting and talking to folks from all over the United States.
"We have lots of brochures and flyers, more than 400 pieces about our area. People are usually looking for events to attend, attractions to see, places to stay, or venues for dining," he said. "A general knowledge of the area is helpful as we are called on to give directions quite often."
For their dedication and unselfish efforts toward the continuing goal of the Elkins Depot Welcome Center, the members of the center's staff and the organization were chosen as Elkins' Volunteer Organization of the Year in 2010.
Many thanks go to the City of Elkins and the Randolph County Commission, as well as the numerous businesses and organizations, for their continued support.
Visit the Elkins Depot Welcome Center at 315 Railroad Avenue, call (304) 635-7803 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more.