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Originally published Monday, June 17, 2013 at 4:01 PM

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Yakima’s brick-and-mortar visitor center remains relevant in electronic age

Joint effort of local bureaus and government helps visitors find attractions — and maybe decide to stay an extra night.

Yakima Herald-Republic

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On Wednesday, David and Karen Brown were heading home to Invermere, B.C., after a vacation in the Southwestern United States.

They had been to Yakima previously and liked it, so they stopped at the Yakima Valley Visitor Information Center for information on available hotels.

Diane Smestad, a full-time travel consultant at the center, was ready with options, but the couple said they had read good things about the Oxford Inn on TripAdvisor, a popular travel website.

Smestad affirmed the positive reviews, noting the hotel’s free breakfast and its proximity to the Yakima Greenway. Once she confirmed availability at the hotel, she gave the couple directions, a map of the Yakima Greenway and a recommendation to visit the Yakima Area Arboretum off the Greenway.

As they left, Karen Brown said, “Maybe we’ll stay two nights.”

The recent encounter demonstrates how the visitors center, which is celebrating 10 years in business, remains relevant despite abundant information via social media and other online channels.

“There’s still a role for a place where people can speak to the locals and learn from the locals,” said John Cooper, president and CEO of the Yakima Valley Visitors and Convention Bureau, which operates the center.

The 1,600-square-foot facility, which opened in 2003 at 101 N. Fair Ave., provides convenient highway access. Previously, visitors had to drive into town to the Yakima Convention Center.

In addition, the center’s architecture resembles a Tuscan-style winery, serving as a gateway to the area’s wineries and vineyards.

Over the years, the center has diversified. In 2006, wine and gifts made in the Valley were offered for retail sale, a concept that was part of the original plan.

But the concept contributed to some delays when government officials took issue with selling alcohol off what is known as an access-control area, which allows for the future expansion of freeway ramps.

That debate was eventually resolved when state, city and federal officials decided not to include the center in the “access control area.”

But to serve and sell wine, additional approval was needed from the state Liquor Control Board. Rather than delay the building, city officials shelved the retail idea for a few years.

Two years ago, the center started offering wine tasting. For $5, visitors get four 1-ounce pours along with a travel wineglass.

These offerings, along with advertisement and sponsorships, make up most of the center’s $127,800 budget. The city of Yakima, which owns the property, provides some funding.

Along with the retail and wine tasting areas, the center provides opportunities for visitors to learn more about the Valley’s offerings.

At the entrance, a welcome table sponsored by the city of Selah’s tourism group offers free cold-brewed coffee from North Town Coffeehouse, which operates in Yakima and Selah. Along the wall are monitors that display rotating images of popular Yakima Valley destinations. During summer months, visitors can pick up donated fruit.

For visitors who head to the center on the way to another destination or use it as a bathroom break, that coffee or piece of fruit could pique their interest in sticking around, Smestad said.

“We’re using everything as a cue to talk about what Yakima has to offer,” she said.

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