Will the Baltimore Visitor Center ever return to daily operations? Here’s what we found.

Published 9/21/2022 9:28 a.m. EDT, Updated 12/2/2022 2:58 p.m. EST

Baltimore’s visually striking Visitor’s Center is open to the public post-COVID.

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Inside the Baltimore Visitor Center, a group of volunteers trades jokes and quips as small groups of tourists file in. It’s a sunny Thursday in the sweet spot between summer and fall, and staff members are directing guests to sporting events, boat tours and places to park.

There aren’t as many visitors as in previous seasons, but the volunteers are no less excited about the work. Many are retirees or older adults who take a few hours each week to guide guests on the best sites to visit, help book tickets to events or give personal suggestions on where to find the best crab cake. They consider themselves cultural conduits to the city’s best attractions, including those off the beaten path.

“You’re trying to put on a good face for Baltimore, so they get a good impression, and they come back again, they go back and talk to their friends,” said John Walther, a volunteer who joined the center about six years ago. “In a lot of cases, this is the first encounter they have [in Baltimore].”

But Walther and other volunteers say they are concerned; the center, which closed in 2020, has been operating at reduced hours, just as tourism resets after a dismal few years. It reopened in February for five days of the week for a weekly total of 20 hours; before the coronavirus pandemic, the center was open seven days of the week for a weekly total of 49 hours. The 2023 fiscal year budget directed $500,000 to the visitor center to support its reopening.

Walther wrote to The Baltimore Banner because he wanted to know: Will the visitor center ever return to daily operations? And, will more city dollars be funneled there to restore it to full strength?

Al Hutchinson, president and CEO of Visit Baltimore — the city’s tourism arm which operates the visitor center — said there are no plans to revert the visitor center back to its pre-pandemic schedule.

He said the hours were reduced due to “funding and slower promenade traffic.” In July and August of 2022, the center welcomed 7,975 visitors.

In July and August of 2018, the center had 45,719 visitors, up from 34,580 in 2017 and 43,222 in 2016. The 2019 numbers are unknown due to a power outage that affected the tracking system during that period, according to Hutchinson.

Despite the reduced hours, Hutchinson called the visitor center a “welcoming and modern resource hub” and said it is a place for regional partners and businesses to showcase their offerings. He also noted the center is highly rated on Tripadvisor. Although traveler habits have changed and more guests also use the internet to help plan trips, he said some prefer prefer face-to-face interactions with local experts.

“The visitor center not only serves as a gateway to our city, the resources available are also an incentive for meeting planners and convention groups looking for a destination that is welcoming and easy to navigate,” Hutchinson said in an email. Visit Baltimore declined to make Hutchinson available for an interview.

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The center — which opened in 2004 — underwent $800,000 in renovations starting in 2015 with the goal of repurposing the space not just for visitors, but also for locals. While the venue hosted industry events and could be rented for private ones before the pandemic, it’s not currently being used for those purposes “due to limited resources and staff,” Visit Baltimore spokeswoman Kelly Nagle wrote in an email.

”We continue to work closely with the administration as we strive to get the Visitor Center back to full operation,” Nagle said.

Hutchinson said plans for the center could change depending on the Inner Harbor’s redevelopment, which currently rests in the control of P. David Bramble of MCB Real Estate. The firm made a deal to obtain Harborplace this past spring. A few months prior, a newly renovated Rash Field opened to the public, complete with a skate park, pavilion and scenic overlook. He referred to the visitor center’s redevelopment as the first project implemented from the “West Shore/Rash Field master plan,” which includes the harbor’s West Shore Park.

Hutchinson said the center’s future may hinge on the harbor’s changes: “Any future plans for the Visitor Center will take the wider Harborplace redevelopment into consideration to ensure the two are complementary,” he said.

Nationally, officials are strategizing how to revitalize the badly-beaten tourism industry, which the U.S. Department of Commerce referred to as one of the hardest hit business sectors caused by the pandemic in a 2022 fact sheet. The industry has begun its rebound, officials said, but a full recovery is not yet within reach.

In Baltimore, the tourism industry had 6 million fewer business and leisure visitors in 2020 compared to 2019, city finance documents show. But tourism revenues are starting to return, having reached 75% to 85% of what they were before the public health crisis by the end of last year, according to budget documents.

Visit Baltimore anticipates having as many as 25 million visitors in 2023, although that would still be fewer than 2019′s 27 million. A complete recovery for business travel — both domestically and internationally — isn’t expected until 2024, according to a travel forecast from Tourism Economics. City officials anticipate local tourism to make a comeback on a similar timeline.

Until then, Walther, of the visitor center, said he will do what he can to promote all the city has to offer, even on a scaled-back schedule.

“There’s so much knowledge here, a lot of local knowledge,” he said. “Maybe not as much for younger people, but I know a lot of people who don’t want to just kind of randomly look on the internet for suggestions and things to do. So they come here, and I think most people are pretty impressed.”

The Baltimore Visitor Center is located at 401 Light St. It is open Wednesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

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