Welcome to Wisconsin

Menomonie rest stops get a makeover, become official

Ed Hudgins, photos by Timothy Mather

WELCOME TO OUR ‘WELCOME TO WISCONSIN’ CENTER! The rest stops off I-94 near Menomonie are now official Welcome To Wisconsin Centers.
WELCOME TO OUR ‘WELCOME TO WISCONSIN’ CENTER! The rest stops off I-94 near Menomonie are now official Welcome To Wisconsin Centers.

As much as people here are excited about the Chippewa Valley, were you aware there are folks out there who actually don’t know how special this place is? When I talk with such people, I will tell them that I live in Eau Claire and love it, and their response is something like, “Really?” It’s almost as if we have a special secret that lots of folks outside the Valley don’t know about.

That’s why the opening of the Travel Wisconsin Welcome Center outside Menomonie is a big deal. In 2009, the Wisconsin Welcome Center in Hudson was closed because of budget constraints. This was unacceptable to leaders and tourism groups in western Wisconsin. In 2011, these folks – who represent tourism groups, local governments and chambers of commerce – met and decided to do something about it. After some hard work and cooperation between the state government and local tourism organizations, the brand new Welcome Center opened in August.

Linda John, executive director of Visit Eau Claire, said she appreciates the teamwork she has experienced in this process.

“This is a very unique partnership, as it’s one of only eight Travel Wisconsin Welcome Centers in the state, and is the only center where there are four communities working together for the private portion of the partnership,” she said.

Between Labor Day and December, staff members were trained and the rest area buildings were remodeled and transformed into the new Welcome Center. On Dec. 11 the center had a grand opening and ribbon cutting, which was attended by Gov. Scott Walker, state Tourism Secretary Stephanie Klett, state lawmakers, and other dignitaries. As I said, this is kind of a big deal.

The Welcome Center is divided into two parts, occupying what were formerly the eastbound and westbound Menomonie rest areas on Interstate 94. Each of the Menomonie Welcome Centers is expected to serve around 200,000 visitors per year. According to John, “(The Welcome Center) will promote the entire state of Wisconsin and encourage visitors to stay longer and spend more dollars in the state.”

It is difficult to estimate the impact the center will have on the state or local economies. However, as more travelers become aware of the uniqueness and variety of activities available in the Chippewa Valley and Wisconsin overall, there is potential for the economic impact to be substantial over the long term.

I have personal experience when it comes to the Welcome Center. Shortly after it opened, I had the privilege of volunteering for a couple of days. For me, it was a joy to talk to people from all over the country when they stopped for a bathroom break or to stretch their legs. Of course, there were people who already know something about the area. Either they live here or they have already discovered something that pulls them back to visit Wisconsin. There were those on their way to Milwaukee, Madison, Chicago or the Twin Cities who just needed a break. And then there were folks with whom I was able to engage in some conversation about local attractions, restaurants and such. It was a lot of fun seeing interests sparked as we discussed the Leinie’s Lodge, Carson Park, the Red Cedar bike trails, the music in the Valley, the Downtown Farmers Market at Phoenix Park, and other points of interest. These kinds of conversations are happening on a regular basis now at the new Welcome Center.

Watch out, Chippewa Valley: Our secrets are getting out!

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