APPOMATTOX — More than a dozen residents turned out Monday night to protest The American Civil War Museum’s proposal to convert its lobby into a welcome center, many voicing concerns the shift will turn visitors away from the downtown’s existing visitor center.
The American Civil War Museum is seeking nearly $24,000 from the town to establish the welcome center, a move it argues will help drive thousands more visitors to downtown Appomattox.
Several Main Street business owners spoke before Appomattox Town Council and a roomful of residents Monday, many voicing fears during a public comments session the change would decrease town traffic.
Beth Turner, a business owner on Appomattox’s Main Street for more than 27 years, said she believes the plan would benefit The American Civil War Museum and harm the town.
“[It will] take away all of our locally owned businesses on Main Street to fund one private business,” Turner said. “Consider why you would take away our hometown atmosphere from our visitors.”
She worried taxpayer dollars would be misused to convert the lobby of the museum, and visitors would see no need to come to the visitor center, located in the historic train depot of Main Street, once they already had found the information they were looking for.
Batina Dunham, owner of Granny Bee’s restaurant in downtown Appomattox, agreed with Turner’s concerns.
“I’m just really afraid that if you want to have a welcome center, it would close the other one down,” Dunham said.
Appomattox Board of Supervisors Chairman Samuel Carter voiced similar fears, and said he wanted the visitor center to stay in the town.
Bob Sayre, the museum’s director of visitor engagement, also spoke before council Monday night. Sayre has spearheaded the welcome center proposal, continuing a discussion he said has been it the works for years.
According to Sayre, the museum is perfectly located at the intersection of U.S. 460 and Virginia 24, with Appomattox Court House National Historical Park 1.5 miles to the northeast and downtown Appomattox 1.5 miles southwest. He proposed new welcome center signs along major corridors, such as U.S. 460 and Virginia 24.
Annually, Appomattox County sees an average of 70,000 visitors, with most of them stopping at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park. The American Civil War Museum — Appomattox sees about 16,000 visitors annually, while the historic downtown Appomattox Visitor Center sees about 7,000, Sayre said.
The key is to catch the visitors lost in the middle, Sayre said. He estimated that could amount to some 40,000 potentially underserved visitors to the area.
During the past several years, Sayre said visitor numbers are going down in the national parks, museum and the town — with the town’s visitor center already seeing their number drop by half in the past 10 years.
Addressing resident concerns, Sayre said museum staff directs visitors downtown daily and a welcome center would increase the amount of people they are able to redirect.
Already, tourists who stop at the museum are asking for the location of the park, places to eat and things to do in the area. With a proposed touchscreen “all-in-one” monitor, additional staffing and print materials, Sayre said they could better point visitors to shops, restaurants and lodging locally.
“We are all part of the community at the museum, we all live here,” Sayre said. “It’s a rising tide and the intent is to have all boats rise at the same time. Not just me, the whole community.”
While council member Mary Lou Spiggle was vocal in her opposition to the welcome center, other council members suggested they continue discussion on the proposal, seeking solutions for the town’s dipping visitor numbers and empty storefronts.
“There are more empty buildings on Main Street then there were five years ago. There are more empty buildings in this town then there were 10 years ago,” council member Steven Conner said. “All we’re trying to do is help keep the buildings we’ve got going so we don’t have any more empty buildings and look for ways to promote business and try to keep the ones we’ve got.”
Council member Claudia Puckette agreed they need to continue to look at answers and explore the option of a welcome center in case it can increase visitor traffic to the downtown. She said she worried residents were relying on misinformation about the proposal.
All of council stressed the desire to watch the town grow, and Mayor Paul Harvey said it would table the vote until they could do more research into the potential effects of a welcome center, hoping to invite specialists to upcoming meetings so all options could be explored.
Sarah Honosky covers Appomattox and Campbell counties at The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5556.