After 32 years, the Newport Visitors Center has closed, significantly changing the way Discover Newport operates, reducing its budget and number of employees.
What was once a robust $4 million budget is now $1.4 million, and only four administrative employees remain from the sales and SEO services staff, and none from the visitors’ bureau, which at this time of year would have reached about 15 employees. Sales and Marketing would have employed another 15.
Evan Smith, president of Discover Newport, said the agency will now put more effort into its primary mission – sales and marketing, while relegating what he described as its “concierge service” to private organizations and an as yet undefined role for Discover Newport.
But the reconfigured Discover Newport will have fewer employees (Smith said perhaps 10 or 11), and a reduced budget from the $4 million that primarily represented the agency’s share of the state lodging tax.
Smith said Discover Newport is primarily a destination marketing company, “getting people to come to the destination” it represents, Newport and Bristol Counties.
The 7,000 square foot Visitors Center attracted nearly 500,000 visitors annually, Smith said. It was the largest of Visitor Centers in Rhode Island, including a small center operated by the Chamber of Commerce on Block Island, and the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council Visitor Center, opposite Slater Mill in Pawtucket.
Discover Newport occupied both the first floor visitor center and offices on the second floor for its administrative staff. Smith said Discover Newport has told the city, which owns the building, that it is exploring locations for its administrative staff.
Smith said Discover Newport once had an annual lease, but four of five years ago for reasons he didn’t recall, the lease was changed to “at will.” The Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) has a 99-year lease with buses coming into the lot adjacent to the center, and a waiting room inside.
Discover Newport paid $40,000 rent annually, plus all utility costs.
By leaving the Visitor Center, Smith said the agency will save about $600,000 annually, including rent, utilities, salaries, and other expenses.
When the Gateway Center was opened in the summer of 1988, Smith said “It was a very important step forward in the evolutionary growth of Newport and Aquidneck Island as a popular travel destination.” It was what Smith described as a “hub for intermodal bus, rail and water connections … designed … as a Newport terminal for RIPTA bus operations, including a waiting area and restrooms and to provide space for a visitor information center.”
He said that when the Gateway Center was built it was “before the evolution of computers and cell phones, technologies that spread rapidly, “changing how people obtain travel related information, including lodging, attractions, shopping, dining and events. Today, Smith said “travelers access information through a multitude of electronic platforms.”
Discover Newport is exploring how to replace its visitor center functions. Smith mentioned several options, including a pop-up model, like a food truck; enhancing the Harbor Center; and privatizing information services.
That leaves the vacant space in what is a prime location near the Newport waterfront. Smith said that while its sad to close the visitor center after 32 years, he sees it “as an exciting new chapter that is coming to the facility. We believe the time has come to repurpose this important piece of real estate”. Smith believes the city should put out a Request for Proposals, and envisions several possibilities, including:
- A new home for the Island Moving Company
- A new home for the Museum of Newport History
- Leased collaborative space for antique dealers
- Bike Newport Bike Center
- A possible alternative location for the Sailing Hall of Fame
- A large retail operation
- A restaurant
- Corporate offices
- New affordable apartments for younger people.