After more than a year of consideration and community push back that spurred several community meetings and multiple delayed votes, the town of Appomattox has approved about $15,000 to convert the lobby of The American Civil War Museum — Appomattox into a welcome center.
The Monday night decision — a 4-3 vote, with Mayor Paul Harvey breaking the tie — followed a final proposal by The American Civil War Museum CEO Christy Coleman.
Coleman said it has been the museum’s intent to drive visitors to all of the assets of the Appomattox community from the beginning. Though the Appomattox Court House National Historical Park sees about 62,000 visitors annually, Coleman said they are losing visitors at their location. The American Civil War Museum — Appomattox sees about 13,500 visitors and the Appomattox Visitor Center sees about 8,800.
“The bottom line is we are smack dab in the middle. About 1.8 miles from the national park service, and about 1.7 miles from the existing visitors center,” Coleman said.
At the museum, located at the intersection of U.S. 460 and Virginia 24, Coleman wants to catch visitors that otherwise may drive straight out of town. She added it is crucial they partner with the town to help direct visitors to Appomattox and keep people there longer.
Many town residents have voiced fears a welcome center in the civil war museum will stunt visitation to the downtown visitors center, and even drive people away from downtown altogether.
“The proposal for the welcome center was never about replacement. It was about supporting,” Coleman said.
With a one-time allocation of $15,065 from the town, Coleman said they can post new signage on major corridors, stock the civil war museum with expanded print materials and brochures and purchase a digital pad map to allow visitors and staff to review all the options in the area interactively.
As a concept, the welcome center would serve as the first step for area visitors, encouraging engagement in shopping, dining, hotels and recreation.
Town council member Steven Conner voiced his support for the welcome center.
“This isn’t hurting anybody, this isn’t doing nothing but helping. There are people out there, and you have to get them to the rest of the town and the county,” Conner said. “This will get our numbers up. We’ve got to get something out on the highway to catch these people.”
Town council member Claudia Puckette raised a similar point, and said she hopes residents are more comfortable with the idea, especially as the proposed signage also directs visitors to the downtown visitors center.
“We need to market ourselves,” Puckette said. “This is one way of doing it.”After months of drawn out conversation, some board members seemed eager to reach a decision.
“There has been a lot of discussion, a lot of misinformation, to the point it has become a distraction to council. We are seeing the same thing, time after time after time,” said town council member James Boyce. “We’re either going to do this, or we’re going to drive it off the map.”
Boyce motioned to approve the $15,065 budgeted for the welcome center, with the option to approve an additional $4,625 for another digital map to be placed in the downtown visitors center.
With residents filling the three rows of folding chairs at Monday night’s meeting, the vote was met with murmurs of both discontent and appeasement.
Bob Sayre, the museum’s director of visitor engagement, has been a driving force behind the welcome center proposal, and said the concept of a welcome center has been in discussion, at one level or another, for the last seven years.
“We started discussing it in earnest with the town about a year ago,” Sayre said. “But it’s been a back and forth with the community, and even folks coming to us.”
Coleman said she is delighted to see the welcome center approved, and called it the first step toward a good partnership. In Richmond, where the civil war museum is headquartered, Coleman said museums across the city must come together to discuss their shared history, and promote the city as a whole.
“That’s the key,” Coleman said. “How to get that same kind of energy and synergy into the community here, that’s what I’m looking forward to.”
Reach Sarah Honosky at (434) 385-5556.