by KELLY GERLACH
for the Bellevue Herald-Leader
The future of the Jackson County Welcome Center in Sabula remains in question as usage numbers decrease and the coronavirus pandemic continues.
The welcome center is located just west of Sabula. For travelers entering Iowa from Illinois, the welcome center offers tourism information, directions, and some locally made products for sale.
The Jackson County Board of Supervisors discussed the building during a work session last week. The supervisors expressed concerns that the building — which looks as quaint as it did decades ago when it was a one-room schoolhouse — recently required a lot of the county’s time and maintenance despite not having opened to the public this year, according to supervisor Jack Willey.
“I know we own it and Marty (Hudrlik, the county maintenance director, has) been down there a lot, but it’s not being used,” Willey noted, speaking to members of the Jackson County Tourism Association, which is informally headquartered in the welcome center.
Recent center maintenance issues have included plumbing problems, “thousands of bugs on the basement floor” according to Hudrlik, and grass close to 4 feet tall according to Willey.
“I was so ashamed of how it looked,” Willey said after driving past it, noting that the building represents Jackson County’s image. “The grass, you could bale it for hay, it was so high. … It looked like hell.”
JCTA typically opens the center for a handful of days a week, typically sometime from May through October. However, the coronavirus pandemic reduced tourism across the country, and JCTA board members felt it best to keep the center closed, at least temporarily, to limit the spread of the virus, according to JCTA President Steve Tebbe.
“We didn’t want to have 1, 2, 3 people come in then have to scrub it all down,” Tebbe told the supervisors.
“I think (the building) needs to be occupied,” Hudrlik said.
“And if not, we need to decide what to do,” Willey added.
Opening this year “doesn’t look good,” according to county tourism director Tom Devine.
Tebbe said the association has considered opening the welcome center in time for fall foliage tourists. He didn’t want to “make any rash decision” to permanently close the welcome center until after the pandemic “dies down.”
JCTA officials have considered the efficacy of the welcome center in its entirety for at least a couple years, Devine said.
Devine said the number of visitors at the welcome center steadily declined in the past seven or eight years, when about 1,500 visitors stopped by. In 2019, that number decreased by more than half, with about 695 visitors to the center.
“It’s been steadily dropping,” Devine said, noting the increased use of smartphones and the internet compared to flyers and brochures, and said some visitor centers across the state and nation have closed in recent years. He supported keeping the center open as long as 700 or so visitors stop there each year.
The JCTA needs better communication with both the county and the Sabula resident who frequently checks on the building, supervisor chairman Mike Steines said. “We don’t want Marty down there all the time,” he added.
Moving forward, at least temporarily, JCTA board members will tell that person exactly what routine tasks need to be done at the welcome center, then will call Hudrlik if more serious needs arise.
The tourism association and supervisors also will continue to examine the efficacy and future relevance of the welcome center.