A proposed welcome center near Ashland would attract more than a million visitors a year, but local residents Thursday claimed it would also bring more noise, increase chances of accidents and potentially attract more crime in their neighborhood.

A proposed welcome center near Ashland would attract more than a million visitors a year, but local residents Thursday claimed it would also bring more noise, increase chances of accidents and potentially attract more crime in their neighborhood.

"This project is expensive, ill-conceived and a bad investment," said Ashland resident Kay Stein.

She was one of more than 60 people who showed up at a Jackson County Planning Commission hearing who either opposed or supported a plan to build a welcome center to replace the one at Siskiyou Summit that shut down in 1996 for safety reasons.

The 18-acre project, estimated by the Oregon Department of Transportation to cost between $5.5 million to $6.5 million, will feature on and off-ramps for travellers heading northbound. In addition to rest rooms and landscaping the rest stop would include a $2 million lodge-style welcome center funded separately through Travel Oregon and the Oregon Travel Information Council.

No trucks would be allowed at the facility, which would be located at milepost 12.5, just south of Crowson Road in Ashland.

If they receive approval and barring any appeals, Oregon Department of Transportation officials expect completion in the summer or fall of 2009.

Because so many people wanted to speak, the Planning Commission continued the public hearing until May 8.

Patrick Nofield of Escape Lodging Company of Cannon Beach endorsed the welcome center that will offer 360-degree views at the entrance to Oregon.

"This is a landmark project for our state," he said.

Ashland resident Connie Foland condemned the project, offering up to 20 reasons why it shouldn't be pursued.

Among her criticisms, she said the rest stop doesn't meet a half-dozen land-use regulations regarding exclusive farm use zoning. Foland claimed the project doesn't meet ODOT's own threshold for building such a facility outside a snow zone.

Carolyn Hill, chief executive officer for the Southern Oregon Visitors Association, praised the welcome center as a boost to tourism, which she said brings $340 million annually locally and $8 billion in the state.

She said that without the welcome center the area is losing out on potential tourism.

"You begin to see what lost opportunities cost our area," she said.

Ashland resident Suzanne Frey said that the more information she receives the more alarmed she becomes by the proposed welcome center.

"I'm now more concerned about traffic safety and criminal activity in our neighborhood," Frey said.

But Bonnie McCormick, who works for the temporary visitor's center at Exit 14, said she lived next to the old welcome center.

"I never once had any problems with anyone coming down our road," she said. The only problem she said was a woman who had lost her cat.

Ashland resident Alan Walters recommended ODOT install a sound wall to protect nearby neighborhoods.

ODOT's noise study doesn't predict any increase because of the project, though it doesn't take into account intermittent sounds such as truckers applying their brakes.

Craig Ackerman, superintendent of Crater Lake National Park, said that with a weakening economy and changing demographics, the state needs to alert visitors to the tourist opportunities that await them.

"There's a real potential to lose visitors," he said.

Stephen Stolzer, an Ashland resident who is a retired engineer, called the project "irresponsible." He claimed the trucks coming down off the Siskiyou Summit several miles to the south will inevitably have problems with vehicles merging back onto the freeway from the welcome center, and he claimed some of those trucks could have failing brakes.

"You will have a disaster on your hands and on your conscience," he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com.