The Visitors’ Center; What’s Really Going On?

Pam North

Prominently situated in central Nederland, the Visitors’ Center, while a modest, rustic structure in appearance, plays a vital role in the town. It is often the first introduction newcomers and tourists have to Nederland, and it’s a valuable resource for them in obtaining informational materials, maps, T-shirts and fun souvenirs that promote and make memorable Nederland’s unique image, music and art events and the quirky Frozen Dead Guy Days.
Nederland Area Chamber of Commerce members and community members have expressed concerns about the operation of the Visitors’ Center. The Town, although enthusiastic about having a Visitors’ Center, has not wished to assume the responsibility and expense of operating it, and so elected to shift that responsibility over to the Nederland Area Chamber of Commerce. Although the Town has a formal 10-year lease with the Chamber, from June 21, 2011, to June 21, 2012, Town Administrator Alisha Reis, elaborated: “This was a formalization of a previous agreement, dating back to 2006, that simply delineated maintenance roles between the Chamber and the Town. It is evidence to the Town that the relationship to operate the Visitors’ Center was made prior to that time, so it would not be accurate to say that the Town shifted this responsibility as recently as 2011.”
The lease to the Chamber designates a nominal rate of $1 per year for the use of the building, specifies that it must be used as a Visitors’ Center and that the Chamber is responsible for upkeep, heat, electricity, gas, telephone, internet, printing, copying, faxing, etc. The Town has responsibility for repairs, maintenance for the public restrooms and provision of water and sewer services. The original lease between the Town and the Chamber was signed by Sumaya Abu-Haidar, who was mayor in 2011, and Blue Hessner, then President of the Nederland Area Chamber of Commerce.
Alisha Reis commented, “The private entity currently operating it is under a management contract with the Chamber.”
Donna Sue Fitzpatrick, Chamber member-at-large, explained how the situation evolved. “The full Board of the Nederland Chamber was facing a very grave financial situation, and it was determined that we could no longer be an events organization, and the events were sold. The Board decided to contract to a vendor to lease the Visitors’ Center, thus keeping it open. Bids were sought publicly, and the contract was given to Dog House, Inc., a legitimate local business as the only one responding to the request for bids.
“A legal contract was drawn up and signed by the Chamber and Dog House, Inc. This contract was renewed about six months ago, as they have done a fantastic job keeping the VC open and running. This also has been a very transparent process. The Town has the contract, and it was approved by the Town when executed. Unless otherwise terminated, the contract would be renewed again.
“When the contract was prepared, the Chamber already was in the process of restructuring its organization, and the Chamber administrative position vacated by Su Tate was offered to Katrina Harms, who resigned from the Chamber when she was offered that part-time job, so she was not a part of the voting in considering or awarding the initial contract to Dog House for the concessionary rights of the Visitors’ Center, and she had no decision-making capability at all for the process or applicants involved.
“Also, the Chamber held a well-attended special meeting at this time to inform the members about what was occurring, as well as a monthly letter to all members which explained the process. The Board made every attempt to let the chamber members at-large know what was occurring and why.”
Katrina Harms, administrative assistant for the Nederland Area Chamber of Commerce, provided further information: “Dog House took on the operation of the Center as a concessionaire, similar to those the National Parks use for gift shops and food vendors. Dog House maintains the Visitors’ Center, pays the phone, internet service, gas and electric. It also pays for all the brochure printing, map copying, all merchandise sold in the Visitors’ Center, and a monthly lease and insurance.
Dog House produces and purchases merchandise from 8236 Gear and Frozen Dead Guy Days, as well as leftover T-shirts from NederNederland, NedFest, and Skatepark. It pays for plants in the summer. Takes care of keeping the Visitors’ Center clean and the sidewalks clear in the winter, as well as managing the recruiting, rewarding and scheduling of volunteers, and keeping the Center open every day of the week from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., May through October (longer hours on weekends), and as much as possible in the winter.
Any holes in the schedule are covered by a Dog House employee. In 2011, foot traffic in the Visitors’ Center totaled about 21,000 people, not counting Frozen Dead Guy Days. Volunteers address visitors’ requests, helping them find what they need, such as a shirt, coat, map, trailhead, directions or something to eat. Although the Center is a Chamber establishment, and only members may place information in the kiosk, volunteers do not discriminate, making known all options to visitors, such as a notebook with menus from all of the restaurants in Nederland.
The NACC inventoried the contents of the Visitors’ Center, and when Dog House took over purchased it all for a little more than $800, so if Dog House were not to renew the contract, it owns the entire contents of the Visitors’ Center. Any new contracted operator of the Center would have to furnish it, purchase merchandise, set up the utilities, phone and insurance.
Monthly expenses for the Visitors’ Center, not including purchasing merchandise, run $1,500 for five summer months, and $900 in the seven winter months. Of the income, 50 percent comes from Frozen Dead Guy Days, 25 percent from books, maps, and cards; 25 percent from the sale of other merchandise. Although the Dead Guy merchandise is 50 percent of the income, it also has the smallest profit margin.
Visitors buy little 8236 merchandise at the Center, and when it is full of FDGD merchandise, there is little room for 8236 merchandise. Because of Dog House, the Visitors’ Center is able to order and purchase supplies and merchandise wholesale, and in large enough quantities to provide discounts. This includes insurance and Internet service.”
The volunteers manning the Visitors’ Center were informed of the change to a private entity operation. Some allegedly chose not to continue to volunteer after the changeover, while others are still involved and are aware of Dog House’s role.
The Mountain-Ear did not receive copies of the Chamber bylaws or the secondary agreement between the Chamber and Dog House, Inc. Donna Sue Fitzpatrick said: “The bylaws for the Chamber are kept in the record storage, and are not in a favorable place at the moment to retrieve, but we will make them available as soon as possible, and hope to have them electronically available at some time in the future. Lack of funds and time from our few volunteers, who have worked hard to keep the Chamber going, have delayed getting things like that done.”
Harms said the Chamber has about 90 Chamber members. Mayor Joe Gierlach commented, “The demon issue here is not a conflict of interest, but a lack of interest.” Gierlach’s view is that many of the problems confronting Nederland are the result of apathy and lack of participation. One only has to attend local meetings and presentations that should be of community interest to see empty seats and few people.
In the event that Dog House or the Chamber should cease to operate the Visitors’ Center, Alisha Reis said, “Subject to approval by the Board of Trustees, the Town would likely issue an Request for Proposals for concessionaire service to operate the VC. The Town does not intend for it to go away completely, despite the Chamber’s current challenges.”