Visitor center: It may be free, but is it needed? |

Visitor center: It may be free, but is it needed?

The merits of a new Main Street visitor center – and whether the fact that it’s free makes it right – took center stage in a Squirm Night debate last night on GrassRoots TV.City Councilman Terry Paulson, who opposes the project, called the facility unnecessary, while Councilman Tim Semrau said the center can’t hurt tourism, might help it and, at the very least, is a valuable asset to be acquired by the city at no cost to taxpayers.Referendum 2A asks Aspen voters if the City Council’s zoning approval for the project should be repealed. Voters who oppose the visitor center plan should vote yes, while those who support it should vote no.Owners of the property at the corner of Galena and Main have approval to redevelop the site with a mix-used building that would include a new visitor center and offices for the Aspen Chamber Resort Association. They have offered to give that space – with an estimated market value of $2 million – to the city.Just because it’s free doesn’t make it right, Paulson argued. The existing visitor center, in front of the Rio Grande parking garage, can be improved and made easier to find with better signs, he said.These days, travelers find their information on the Internet, not at a visitor center, anyway, he added. And, all of Aspen functions as a visitor center – tourists can stop in anywhere and get information from locals, Paulson said.”Don’t put a traffic magnet in the central core, where you’re trying to get rid of traffic,” he added.Paulson said he never uses a visitor center when he travels; Semrau said he stops in at one about one-third of the time.As for the proposed center on Main Street: “If we can get a brand-new visitor center for free, it can only help,” Semrau said.”I’m not sure if we need it … if it’s a very valuable asset to the city that’s free, and it may improve the visitor experience … I don’t see any reason not to accept it,” he said.If voters reject the visitor center, the property’s owners can return with a proposal for much the same building, Semrau added.”There are building rights on this lot, the same building could be built anyway,” he said.Not so, Paulson countered. Covenants on the property will prevent the current proposal or something similar, he said.The developers and neighboring condo owners at the Galena Street Lofts are at odds on the covenant issue. A lawsuit has been filed that addresses that issue.What is clear, Semrau said, is the covenants don’t prevent the city from accepting the gift, pending the outcome of the suit.Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is

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