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Visitors' center welcomes the world

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By April Wright, Reporter

Now that the new Galax Visitor Center has been open every day for the past couple of weeks, Ray Kohl, director of the downtown facility, has met visitors from throughout the country, as well as Australia, Germany, France, England, Ireland and Canada.

Kohl said some, who were here on weekend trips and day-long visits, are now planning to return for Smoke on the Mountain state barbecue championship in July and the Galax Old Fiddlers' Convention in August.

Most visitors to the center on East Grayson Street, Kohl said, come from all over North Carolina. But he has also spoken with tourists from Washington, Florida, New Jersey, Vermont, West Virginia, Tennessee, Texas and Maryland.

A family from Charlotte, N.C., stopped in the visitor center and was quickly sold on coming back to the summer festivals. Another family making a stop in Galax after traveling from Florida to Indiana has already booked their vacation for the fiddlers' convention.

“It's wonderful and amazing how many come to Galax and give us positive comments,” said Kohl. “They talk about how much we have and how supportive the city seems. One visitor said 'it really seems like you have pride in the community and what the future holds.'”

Kohl said many seem to be repeat visitors, not only for the area attractions, but also because of the friendliness of the locals.

“When they go into the Smokehouse, they're surprised how friendly people are, and they can spend all day in there just talking to people,” he said. “It's a selling point.”

Weekends are high travel times. As many as 50 or 60 stop in the center on Fridays and Saturdays, and on a weekday, maybe 20, Kohl said.

A registration book will be set up at the visitor center, and once that is done, Kohl will be able to accurately gauge how many visit the center and where those individuals are from.

At least three families have called and requested packets of information on the area because they're moving here, he said.

Some come to the visitor center after a long ride on the New River Trail, and Kohl has met several travel journalists, noting that the Rex Theater and the Crooked Road were recently featured in Southern Living magazine.

“One thing we want to be able to do is market the city and let people know what's going on,” said Kohl. “Some think that it's a downtown visitor center, but it's for all of the city. We want everyone to know that we're here to support businesses and events here in the area.”

The welcome center, a part of the downtown revitalization project, is across from the Galax Municipal Building on East Grayson Street. John Parsons, whose father operated a law office in the 1949-era building, donated it to the city in November 2008 to be used as a visitors' center.

“What is so special about the visitor center is that all the remodeling was done by the employees of the City of Galax,” said Kohl. “It's beautiful, and the people are pleased with the facility.”

In addition to Kohl, three people have been hired to greet visitors, and Kohl hopes to soon recruit some volunteers who know the area well to help staff it.

Kohl said the city has turned to its Web site, Facebook and Twitter to get out the word that Galax is the “Best Pick in Virginia.”

If organizations have events going on, they can add it to the Web site calendar of events, or add it to the city's Facebook page, he said.

At the welcome center, tourists or locals can stop in and pick up brochures that advertise the area, as well as places throughout Virginia; view a wall of digital photos and music videos that showcase Galax's attractions and festivals; and check their e-mail through Wi-Fi access. Kohl said the center is receiving brochures and maps from all over the state that will allow individuals to plan their future vacations.

A grand opening is being planned for next month.

The Galax Visitor Center is open Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m.-6 p.m.; Friday, 9 a.m.-8 p.m.; Saturday, from 9 a.m.-6 p.m.; and Sunday, noon-5 p.m. Hours will be extended during downtown events and festivals. For information, call 236-8130 or 233-8060.