Welcome center ready to open at last at Thomas Jefferson Gardens
By ANDREW MCGINN
It will be called the Thomas Jefferson Gardens Education and Welcome Center.
The journey it took to completion was only slightly less dramatic than the American Revolution.
But with a tenant — the Greene County Chamber of Commerce — set to move in, Greene County is at last ready to declare itself open for tourism.
“It’s been a long struggle,” Mary Weaver, a member of the Thomas Jefferson Gardens board, said recently as painters touched up their work inside the renovated building at Lincoln Way and Chestnut Street. “It’s finally come to fruition.”
The building at the center of the gardens — once at the center of a fight over the city of Jefferson’s pot of hotel-motel tax money — will host a grand opening from 5 to 6:30 p.m. June 9 on the first night of the Bell Tower Festival.
By then, the Chamber will have left City Hall for its new digs.
The Chamber will occupy the building for free, having only to pay for phone and internet, Weaver said.
“We’re just appreciative that they’re going to be here welcoming people,” she said.
On weekends in which the Bell Tower is open, staff hired by the Thomas Jefferson Gardens will man the building, welcoming visitors not only to the county seat, but to the building’s toilet seats.
Public restrooms downtown have been long overdue, it’s been argued.
The gardens board last summer received a special grant of $150,000 from the Grow Greene County Gaming Corp. to finish the building.
An earlier plan by the Chamber to operate the building as a welcome center fell apart amid a battle with the city over hotel/motel tax revenue — money the Chamber wanted to use to finish renovating the building.
The completion of a welcome center has revived a push to market Greene County as a tourist destination, an effort that initially began shortly before the opening of Wild Rose Casino.
A new countywide tourism committee has been meeting this spring to brainstorm marketing ideas in hopes of improving on a 2015 statistic from Iowa State University Extension showing Greene County ranked 88th of Iowa’s 99 counties in tourism revenue.
In 2015, Iowa as a whole generated $8 billion in tourism.
“We don’t want to be 88th,” Weaver said.
An early undertaking by the committee was the creation of tour packages that could appeal to bus tours.
“We’re ready to roll those out,” Weaver said.
Tours have been designed for history buffs, gardeners, admirers of art and fans of rural churches.
There’s even an “alternative energy” tour of wind turbines and an ethanol plant.
The Thomas Jefferson Gardens Education and Welcome Center will be central to all efforts.
“All the tours will originate from here,” Weaver said.
The Chamber will still coordinate the bus tours, according to Weaver.
The building also will be available for a fee for meetings and functions.
The education component of the building’s name could be in the form of gardening and history classes, Weaver said.
After all, the Thomas Jefferson Gardens were developed in the tradition of Jefferson’s own Monticello.
Even now, though, work isn’t done.
“The gardens will never be done,” Weaver said. “The gardens are dynamic, because they’re gardens.
“They’ll be growing and changing.”