Tourism Authority Visitors Center Losing its Lease; New Space Sought

One of San Diego's warmest welcome mats for out-of-towners is facing an uncertain future, possibly to wind up out in the cold unless efforts to relocate it are successful.

It’s the visitors information center that’s been on the North Embarcadero for three decades, most recently in a modular temporary structure north of the cruise ship terminal.

The operation, housed in a temporary modular structure, is overseen by the Tourism Authority created in 2013 -- whose spending regulations don't allow subsidies to keep it afloat.

The center's "in the black" -- but failure to meet a huge port rent increase could shut it down by March 31st.

Its landlord, the San Diego Unified Port District, has tabbed Old Town Trolley to operate a new visitor information center from a kiosk to the south, expected to open in early spring within the $31 million first phase of the North Embarcadero Visionary Project.

“The Port has always agreed that having a welcoming visitor center on San Diego’s ‘front porch’ is very important,” says Jenny Windle, the district’s marketing and communications director.

But the 60-some volunteers who staff the Tourism Authority’s information center – and helped nearly 102,000 tourists last year – wonder whether their level of service can be matched by the newcomers on the block.

"Sophisticated visitors expect to find this kind of service, they expect to find a visitors center and come in for us to help them,” says center volunteer Bill Brittingham. “And our contacts last anywhere from ten seconds to 45 minutes depending on what they need. And no one -- certainly no profit-making company -- would be expected to spend the amount of time telling people how to get to Sea World on a bus. What the difference is between Safari Park and the Zoo."

We heard this testimonial about the service there on Tuesday from cruise ship passenger Kathie West of Grass Valley, CA: "Oh wow, it was awesome! I mean we didn't know what to do and I'm a travel agent -- I brought a group of 20, and I didn't really know what to show my group, so I came in here and I got all these pamphlets that were very helpful. And I have a family that's on a budget so they gave us information on what to see and do. There's so many options, I don't know how I would have done that."

Said Eddie Romo, a Pacoima resident: "They helped me, they answered all my questions real quick, gave me some brochures, what I wanted to know. And I was in and out of there within five minutes with what I needed to know. I got this, and now I'm right here with my wife talking it over , ready to go back and make our decisions."

Exterior and interior billboard advertising revenues and a cut of discount ticket sales have been covering the center's annual rent of $350,000.

But the port hiked it to what operators concluded is an unmanageable $1.2 million.

Still unknown is how much tourism business the center has generated by virtue of the volunteers’ advice, and not gotten credit for.

"Every day we recommend to hundreds of tourists what to do in San Diego,” Brittingham noted in an interview. “We recommend restaurants, hotels; we recommend that they visit a certain venue. And in most cases, they walk out of this building and immediately go spend their money. Nobody counts that. But it's a very important service."

“I don't want to say that they discount our efforts,” volunteer Ellen Levy told NBC 7. “I don't know what happened here because all we are is volunteers, and I'm not politically involved … we need somebody to put their name on a visitors center so we can help visitors again."

Windle offered this response NBC 7: “We recognize the positive impact the volunteer base has made – and continues to make – San Diego and we remain willing and able to relocate them on the Embarcadero.”

Left unaddressed was the issue of rent.

So far, no philanthropists has come forward to underwrite whatever cost might be involved – and get their name on the place, if they so desire.

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