What is next for the Rifle Information Center?
Among the many decisions Rifle’s new City Council will likely face after the Sept. 8 election, the future of the Rifle Information Center could be one of the more pressing and controversial items.
The center, which is owned by the city and operated by the Rifle Area Chamber of Commerce, is an ongoing topic of discussion among members of the Greater Rifle Improvement Team — a recently hatched effort aimed at increasing communication and collaboration among local organizations.
The information center, which is tucked between Interstate 70 and the Colorado River, served as the Chamber’s main headquarters up until June, when it moved to its new location at 11th Street and Railroad Avenue.
The move to a more centralized location was beneficial for the Chamber’s renewed focus to serving its members, as well as new goals of attracting new businesses, said Andrea Maddalone, Chamber president and CEO. More members have stopped by to visit and some people have even dropped in the new location inquiring about how to start a businesses, she added.
Amid the changes have been questions from the Chamber, and others, regarding future operations of the information center, and if continuing as is bests serves the Chamber’s members. Within that conversation — which is in the early stages — some from various parties have asked if the information center should continue to exist.
The question was posed to two candidates for City Council at a recent forum organized by the Chamber. In addition to whether or not the center should continue to operate, the candidates were asked about future partnerships that could alleviate some of the burdens associated with the center.
“I don’t know how much traffic that information center is really getting that’s being directed into Rifle,” said Councilor Joe Elliott, the only incumbent in the race.
The goal is obviously to get folks into town, candidate Theresa Hamilton added.
The question of how much traffic the center is actually generating in Rifle is an important one to consider as the city and stakeholders discuss the value of the center, and the most effective method for spending existing funds, said Nathan Lindquist, Rifle planning director.
With the exception of 2013, when $200,000 was transferred to the city’s capital fund, the information center has operated in the black without dipping into reserves dating back to 2011, according to city budget documents. The fund was projected to end 2014 with a $260,643 unreserved total balance.
In the candidate forum, Elliott said he did not know what should happen with the center, but referenced the current discussion among GRIT members. Hamilton suggested a potential partnership with a local historical group or other organization, but said incentives would likely be needed. Regardless, the space seems too valuable to simply close, she added.
So far, the current discussions have not led to any concrete answers.
“The point was trying to at least look at it,” Lindquist said. “We still don’t really know if anything is going to change.”
“No idea is off the table,” Maddalone added.
With budget season around the corner, the issue will likely be brought before council in a work session after new members take office, Lindquist said.
For thousands of people pulling off Interstate 70, the information center could, and in many instances is, the only personal contact a traveler has with the city of Rifle, said Kathy Runia, a long-time resident and employee at the center.
“We have to be the cheerleaders for Rifle,” she said.
That cheerleading is frequently welcomed by visitors. A guest book inside the center contains the names and remarks of travelers from across the world. Those include emphatic scribblings commenting on the cleanliness of the facility and the helpfulness of the employees — the Chamber has four employees, according to Maddalone, who work behind the desk every day of the year except Christmas, and Runia manages a team of volunteers who contributed 311 hours of time valued at $7,175 in labor, in 2014.
After chatting with Runia for several minutes, Missouri residents Janice and Richard Cody walked out of the center recently with a map. The vacationing couple stopped by to use the restroom and decided to explore the adjacent information center. Although Janice said the couple did not intend on stopping in Rifle, she remarked about how helpful and friendly “the woman inside” was.
At the end of the day, the best the people at the center can do is create a good impression, thereby giving people a reason to remember Rifle. But that does not mean the center does not make every effort to direct people into town.
A total of 34,682 visitors stopped at the center in 2014. Of those, 1,150 were directed to area restaurants, 378 were sent to hotels and 456 were sent to businesses other than hotels. While the chamber is unable to track how many of those actually make it into town, Runia said she has seen a countless number of people return and thank the employees for directing them to a certain destination.
Of course, not everyone who stops at the rest area visits the information center. People like Gail Ritola from Anaheim, California, just want to take a break from the road. Although she had no intentions of heading into town, Ritola said she remembered the rest stop from a previous trip. She decided to stop because of the shade and the easy access from the interstate.
Kevin Bell, from Washington, also stopped to take a break. Bell, who was on a business trip, said he did not intend on stopping in town. Had this trip been a vacation, he would have likely entered the information center and checked out Rifle.
“I just needed a break … it would have been different if it were a vacation,” he said.
Whether or not future travelers like Bell will have somebody to greet them remains a question without a definitive answer.
“It’s all just kind of wide open,” Lindquist said.
Maddalone said she hopes the center remains open, but admitted that it’s a hard decision ahead.
“Hopefully with the collaboration of all these groups we can come up with something,” she said.
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