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State to cut hours at welcome centers if no nonprofits step up

Debbie Bentley, a certified travel counselor, helps a traveler with some directions at the South Carolina Welcome Center near Exit 5 in Hardeeville.
Debbie Bentley, a certified travel counselor, helps a traveler with some directions at the South Carolina Welcome Center near Exit 5 in Hardeeville. File, The Island Packet

South Carolina tourism officials will again scale back operating hours at the state's welcome centers beginning Jan. 1 and are renewing their call for private financial aid to cope with budget cuts.

At least eight of the state's nine centers, including its busiest at Interstate 95's Exit 5 in Hardeeville, will start closing on Tuesdays and Wednesdays next year, Department of Parks, Recreation & Tourism spokesman Marion Edmonds said Monday.

Visitors centers and lobbies will be closed, but restrooms, picnic tables and parking lots will remain available, he said.

The status of the welcome center at Santee is in flux because the Charleston Area Convention & Visitors Bureau is paying to run it.

The state had closed all centers Tuesdays and Wednesdays in early 2009 before the Charleston CVB came to its aid at Santee, allowing the state to restore its other centers to seven days a week.

Budget cuts have continued, however, so the state now seeks applications from other nonprofit organizations willing to bear the cost of other centers, Edmonds said. PRT officials had started that search but have decided to allow other state officials, who specialize in procurement, to do their own searches, he said.

PRT's budget has been slashed nearly in half -- to about $17 million -- over the past two years, Edmonds has said.

Officials at the primary marketing agencies for Beaufort County and its municipalities -- the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton and Beaufort Regional chambers of commerce -- have said they hope the state will reconsider its plan to turn to private agencies for help.

Beaufort Regional chamber officials said Monday they have not allocated money for state welcome centers in this year's budget. Hilton Head-Bluffton chamber officials could not be reached for comment.

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