'THEY WANT TO CONNECT WITH THEIR COMMUNITY'

Welcome Center to stay open after town funding ends

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PITTSBORO — The Welcome Center, which opened in downtown Pittsboro last spring, serves as a resource for curious visitors and residents who want to know more about the area has to offer. 

Main Street Pittsboro (MSPBO), the nonprofit in charge of the facility, will stop receiving funding from the town of Pittsboro at the end of the fiscal year in June. But that doesn’t mean it’ll close.

Maria Parker-Lewis, who serves as the MSPBO board president, said the group has taken the steps to ensure the Welcome Center — which serves Pittsboro and the entire county — won’t cease operation, despite the lack of town funding. 

“We all believe that it serves an important function,” Parker-Lewis said. “People are moving into the area, and so we feel that the community doesn’t want the Welcome Center closed.”

Pittsboro’s board of commissioners voted 3-2 last October to end the memorandum of understanding between the town and Main Street Pittsboro in favor of forming its own in-house downtown advisory board. Former Pittsboro mayor and MSPBO board member Randy Voller said he felt the town made the wrong decision when it terminated the MOU because of Welcome Center’s value as a community resource and marketing tool.

“We thought it would be great to have this as controlled by a quasi-public entity by lease,” Voller said, “so that when you had downtown events, you could have parking, you could have a green room, you could have a place to welcome people and the community.”

Town staff are not responsible for the Welcome Center — MSPBO, rather, is in charge of the operations within the building. But because the town played a crucial role in the funding the nonprofit received to maintain the Welcome Center, without those funds, MSPBO will have to be responsible for keeping it open and funding its expenditures.

Parker-Lewis says the nonprofit will be changing its name to continue the operations of the Welcome Center, as well as expanding its services beyond Pittsboro’s town limits. 

“The Welcome Center had a strong focus on Pittsboro because it was a part of the Main Street (program),” Parker-Lewis said. “We’re going to now be independent from the town ... we’ll continue to support Pittsboro, but even more strongly Chatham County tourism, economic development and promoting community activities.”

MSPBO has arranged a team to help keep the center open for visitors as it continues to have talks with the town regarding the transition to an in-house downtown advisory board. 

One crucial Welcome Center staff member is Paul Sacca, who mans the center during operating hours Wednesdays through Saturdays and helps provide information about Pittsboro and the county to visitors — as well as new Chatham residents who are looking to learn more about their community. 

One of the main goals of the Welcome Center is to help provide support to businesses around the town, county and region, according to Sacca. 

“I have a list as an example of all of the restaurants, all of the shops, bed and breakfasts, all kinds of things about the town,” he said. 

The Welcome Center serves thousands of visitors and residents, according to Sacca. More than 3,000 people have walked through the Welcome Center in the last year, coming from 45 different states and 13 countries. With visitors from around the globe stepping foot into the Welcome Center, Sacca said there is a clear need for the facility. The feedback he has received has proven it. 

“The feedback I get is amazing,” Sacca said. “The feedback I get is, ‘Thank you. I feel welcomed, and this has been enormously helpful for me.’”

Sacca isn’t alone in noticing a positive response to the Welcome Center. Parker-Lewis said the main reason MSPBO wants to keep the center open is the continued increase in the area’s population — which, with the growth of Chatham Park and the addition of carmaker VinFast (and its 7,500 new jobs) will only accelerate.

“We’ve served thousands of people, and a lot of them are people that are relocating,” Parker-Lewis said. “They want to connect with their community; they want to become a part of this place that they have moved to.”

The Welcome Center in downtown Pittsboro has provided a place where visitors and new residents can “see what the vibrant community has to offer,” she said, but they are not the only ones who benefit. Long-time residents are also pleased with the center and its mission.

“There are people downtown that appreciate that we’ve taken this ugly building in the center of town, renovated it and made it into something that’s welcoming to everyone,” she said.

MSPBO plans to host fundraising events to help keep the Welcome Center’s doors open.  The COVID-19 pandemic put prior attempts over the last two years on hold, but “Local on Lorax” — a new event from 5 to 8 p.m. on May 1 at The Plant in Pittsboro — will kick off new efforts to fund the operation. 

“Everything there will go to the running of the Welcome Center,” Parker-Lewis said. “That way as soon as our agreement ends on June 30, we’ve got funds to continue.”

As MSPBO continues with its rebrand, Parker-Lewis said she wants to connect with businesses and new residents across the county, fulfilling what she believes to be the Welcome Center’s mission. 

“Now that we can be (focused) county-wide,” she said, “we feel like we can really partner and collaborate with other businesses in the county, nonprofits … especially tourism businesses to work together to raise funds and promote what a wonderful place we have.”

The Welcome Center is located at 37 Hillsboro St. in downtown Pittsboro and is open on Wednesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Reporter Taylor Heeden can be reached at theeden@chathamnr.com.

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