Does Humboldt County need a welcome center to greet tourists at its southern border? A group of local hoteliers thinks so, and county officials have begun exploring the idea to see if it’s feasible.
The California Department of Transportation, or Caltrans, owns a piece of property near Cooks Valley that could serve as the site for such a center. It’s a boot-shaped parcel that you’ll see along the
west east side of Hwy. 101 as you’re entering Humboldt County from the south. Dominated by wide patch of dirt and rocks, the property sits on a bluff above the South Fork Eel River and is typically vacant, except when Caltrans employs it as a staging area to store and load equipment for road improvement projects.
In recent weeks and months, employees in the county’s economic development division and public works department have been talking with Caltrans personnel about the property. The state agency has indicated that it’s willing to consider designating the land “surplus property,” which could allow the county to either swap some of its own land for it or possibly purchase it before it’s released for public bid.
On Tuesday, the board of supervisors will consider authorizing Public Works Director Tom Mattson to negotiate terms with Caltrans, which would be the first real step in a longer process toward potential development of the welcome center.
“We have some sites we use in our road maintenance division that would be strategically located [for Caltrans],” Mattson said. “They have ample space, so maybe we can trade and they [Caltrans] would get a more strategic location. Everything’s in the air at this point.”
Second District Supervisor Michelle Bushnell said a group of Southern Humboldt hoteliers first promoted the idea of a welcome center at the county entrance — “something like a coffee shop with information about the county … like information about what to see in Ferndale and Eureka and Garberville to showcase where to visit,” Bushnell said.
Economic Development Director Scott Adair said his division was approached during the height of the COVID pandemic by the SoHum hoteliers, including Benbow Inn owner John Porter. Out-of-area residents who’d grown sick of staying home had hit the road in droves, leaving their populous city centers and heading for the clean, open air among the redwoods. For months on end, virtually every hotel room and campsite in the county was booked.
To some extent, this surge in tourism has held.
“The pandemic has altered the psyches of people,” Adair said. “Suddenly a backpacking trip in the woodlands with no one around is much more appealing, and we’re hoping to capture some of that.”
The SoHum hoteliers formed a new nonprofit called Redwood Highway Gateway Foundation, and together they began pursuing the welcome center concept in earnest, hoping to create a place that could function as “a stopping point at the front door of Humboldt County, where travelers that were coming northbound could stop and learn about all the travel and tourism activities in Humboldt County,” Adair said.
If the county manages to secure ownership of the property from Caltrans, county officials would then need to open up a competitive bidding process, issuing a request for proposals to identify businesses and/or nonprofits interested in developing and operating the welcome center. The county doesn’t intend to operate the center itself, according to Bushnell, Adair and Mattson.
But Adair said the county could pursue grant funding to help finance the project, should things get that far — seeking tourism funds from state granting agencies or even federal COVID relief dollars, some of which have been earmarked for projects supporting travel and tourism.
“But we really haven’t gone far down that road because if we can’t identify a site, there is no project,” Adair said.
This particular site is right next to Cooks Valley Campground, which hosts tourists as well as events such as the popular Northern Nights Music Festival, but Bushnell said she has spoken with the owners of that property and they don’t object to the welcome center concept.
As usual, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors will meet in board chambers at the Humboldt County Courthouse, 825 Fifth Street in Eureka. The meeting is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m., and if you’d like to participate but can’t/won’t be there in person, you can now tinker with the levers of government remotely via Zoom by calling the conference line (720-707-2699), entering meeting ID number 839 5427 2282 and then pressing star (*) 9 on your phone to raise your hand when the agenda item comes up.