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Oregon welcomes drivers, asks them to stay a while

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Oregon has rolled out the welcome mat for travelers with the opening of the Siskiyou Rest Area and Welcome Center.

Just south of Ashland on Interstate 5, people were stopping Tuesday to stretch their legs and take a break from the road.

While a staff member helped a father with directions, his toddler ran straight for the playhouse as her mom took photos. Grandpa used the break to sit on a leather couch, while the son browsed the many pamphlets.

As if they had little time to spare, dad gathered his passengers to return to I-5 assured he was driving in the right direction.

In addition to offering a break from the I-5 congestion, the welcome center offers free posters, postcards, stickers, temporary tattoos and coloring pages that feature Travel Oregon’s animated campaigns starring whimsical Oregonian creatures in beautiful landscapes such as meadows where puppies run wild and giant bunnies hop through tulip fields with the slogan “Only slightly exaggerated.”

About 60% of Oregon’s visitors enter from I-5 through California, Travel Southern Oregon board member Katharine Cato said.

The rest area had a soft opening July 31 and saw an excess of 220 visitors a day in the first week of August, Cato said. An average good day at the Portland welcome center is about 200 visitors a day.

“So, we’ve already exceeded the busiest welcome center in the state,” Cato said. “The takeaway from that is there is such a need for welcoming our visitors, for primarily a drive market, through our I-5 corridor, up through Ashland and Southern Oregon.”

Cato, who also is the Ashland Chamber of Commerce Marketing Director, said the chamber has pushed for this welcome center to open for decades because they understood the market for such a facility.

“We’re really excited and happy to have this presence in our community,” Cato said.

The welcome center and rest area is fully operational and staffed now, but a grand opening is planned for the Labor Day weekend. Various events are planned from Aug. 26 to Sept. 2, Executive Director of Travel Southern Oregon Brad Niva said.

Events include T-shirt giveaways, vendors and local businesses such as Harry & David and the Rogue Creamery handing out treats, root beer floats by Caldera Brewery and possibly chair massages for tired drivers and live music, Niva said.

Niva said staff is planning to welcome travelers into Oregon, but specifically Southern Oregon those days by showcasing the best the Rogue Valley has to offer. There will be no beer or wine tastings in a rest area, he added.

“Common sense says we can’t give our drivers alcohol,” he explained.

“And no marijuana samples either,” he added with a chuckle.

The rest area is open to drivers 24/7 but does not have space allotted for semi-trucks. Semi drivers will need to go 5 miles North to the Oregon Department of Transportation weigh station near mile marker 13, Niva said.

The welcome center is owned by Travel Oregon, which is the Oregon Tourism Commission, and is contracted and staffed by Travel Southern Oregon, an organization dedicated to driving tourism in the southern region.

The welcome center is open daily from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. through September, then the hours switch to 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The center is open every day excluding Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.

The project was in the works for about 20 years, ODOT Area Manager Art Anderson said.

The total cost including construction, planning, the purchase of the right-of-way, bathrooms at the port of entry, etc. was $18.5 million, he said.

The project was paid for with federal and state gas taxes and involved a fund transfer arrangement with the city of Medford, according to the state’s website.

Travel Oregon Chief Executive Officer Todd Davidson said in a press release that for every dollar spent operating a welcome center, visitors spend $35 more, adding that travelers who come to welcome centers spend an additional $1,200 on their Oregon vacation.

“This is a critical entrance to Oregon, an important gateway for Oregon’s tourism industry, and we now have a center that’s going to extend the right and proper welcome to those visitors,” Davidson said.

The facility is not only visually pleasing with its Cascadia-theme and northwest-inspired fire lookout but filled to the brim with information for travelers.

Even the staff inside were taken on outings prior to the opening so that they possess personal knowledge of fun activities in the state.

Rows upon rows of displays are artfully filled with travel-related publications inside.

“If you want information on wine tasting in Southern Oregon, we have that,” Niva said. “Wine tasting in Bend we have that, if you want information on Crater Lake or a jet boat trip on the Rogue River in Grants Pass, we have it all,” Niva said.

Cato and Niva both iterated that although it is a gateway into Ashland and Southern Oregon, the welcome center is for all of Oregon and staff are prepared to encourage people to travel all over the state.

“The activation of the new welcome center is basically rolling out the welcome mat for people coming to Oregon from the South,” Niva said. “It’s a rest area. In the welcome center there’s couches, free internet, places to charge your phone, to relax and get off the road for a bit as well as a great portfolio of attractions from all seven regions of the state.”

He said the kid play area and coloring station was intended for parents to get the kids out of the car “and get some wiggling done.” A designated pet relief area will soon be added.

There’s also an office space for the Oregon State Police Department to allow them a break from the road.

“At the same time, we like the act of having police officers as an additional sign of security,” Niva said.

There are eight welcome centers in the state.

“We do know about 20,000-25,000 cars will be passing on a daily basis, so we can encourage them to go to the coast, Crater Lake, Bend and Portland. ...,” Niva said. “Each time we have an opportunity to educate people on the state they often return.”

The state transportation commission is scheduled to have their monthly meeting in Ashland this week to get an update on the region including activities such as touring the new rest area and construction of state roads between the California border and milepost 11.

Manager at the welcome center Linda Kilcollins said she’s excited to promote Oregon.

“We would certainly wish to promote our state and if not increase the number of days of travel to the state this time round, perhaps educate travelers for all things Oregon has to offer so that we can extend their stay for the next time and encourage them to come back,” Kilcollins said.

Contact Tidings reporter Caitlin Fowlkes at cfowlkes@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4496. Follow her on Twitter @cfowlkes6.

(Aug. 14: Story updated to correct the days the welcome center is open.)

Andy Atkinson / Ashland Tidings Logs with Oregon facts carved into them inside at the newly opened Welcome Center and rest area off I-5 northbound in Ashland Tuesday morning.
Andy Atkinson / Ashland Tidings California travelers use the newly opened Welcome Center and rest area off I-5 northbound in Ashland Tuesday morning.
Andy Atkinson / Ashland Tidings Heading into the newly opened Welcome Center and rest area off I-5 northbound in Ashland.
Andy Atkinson / Ashland Tidings California travelers use the newly opened Welcome Center and rest area off I-5 northbound in Ashland Tuesday morning.