Combined Efforts of Many Contribute to Proud Opening of the Amherst Visitor Center

by Sharon Wright & Dan Curran

After more than 20 years of planning and restoration, and not without trials and tribulations, the Amherst train depot has opened as a Visitor Center with offices for the Amherst County Economic Development Authority and the Amherst County Chamber of Commerce.

The restored depot sits in clear view of both US 29 and US 60, its bright yellow exterior a draw to travelers. The visitor center offers information about places and events in the county that interest tourists. It also houses historical information about the county as well as the depot itself.

The Amherst County Visitor Center

The original Amherst Train Depot was built by Southern Railway in 1913 for passenger service. In the 1920s, freight service was added to the line, and the station was remodeled to add a freight room. By the 1940s, it hosted three passenger trains per day, but these were discontinued in the 1960s, and freight service ended in the 1970s. The building stood empty.

The idea for the project was originally introduced in 1995 when the depot still stood at its original site on Depot Street. The depot then was owned by local businessman Marshall Mays, who donated the building to the Amherst County Chamber of Commerce. The deed for the future site, at Rts. 60 and 29, was given to the local non-profit Friends of the Historic Amherst Train Station.

Headed by Marlene Fitzgerald (formerly Marlene Mays, daughter of Marshall Mays), along with Lynn Cunningham and E. O. Kinnier, The Friends of the Historic Amherst Train Station worked with the county to contract with architectural firm Dalgliesh, Eichman, Gilpin & Paxton. The renovation was completed in stages as federal grants were administered through the Virginia Department of Transportation. In time, the land and building were turned over to Amherst County.

An early photo of the Amherst Depot
(Courtesy of Fred Loving).

The Friends of the Historic Amherst Train Station is no longer active, but the local organization was an important early advocate for the Depot. The Friends applied for and received several grants, all done through Amherst County acting as the fiscal agent. The grants were available through a federally funded program for travel enhancement and had to work through a local government. The Friends were not involved in the final grants for the completion of the visitor’s center as Amherst County became fully involved.

The building was relocated to its current site in 2008 and renovated with federal grant money administered through the Virginia Department of Transportation after VDOT presented plans to straighten Depot Street.

At times the entire project was delayed due to concerns about financial responsibility and stipulations of grant and loan providers, but the enthusiasm for the future visitor’s center didn’t wane.

County officials consulted with local historians and viewed historical pictures in order to maintain the authentic qualities of the depot. In the second stage of the project, exterior renovations included replacing the roof and siding, reusing as much of the original materials as possible. Parking, a concrete patio, and new windows and doors were added. An old railroad signal that was donated by former Amherst County Chamber President Bill Callahan stands outside the depot.

From left- Patrick Dreher, ACCC Board President; Dean Rodgers, Amherst County Administrator; Claudia Tucker, Board of Supervisors Chairwoman; Amanda Ramsey, former ACCC Board President and current Vice-President; David Proffitt, Asst. County Administrator; Vanessa Angus, Director of ACCC and Tourism; Marlene (Mays) Fitzgerald, former President of The Friends of the Amherst Railroad Station; Lynn Cunningham, former officer with the Friends of the Amherst Railroad Station; E.O. Kinnier, former officer with the Friends of the Amherst Railroad Station; Gary Taylor (atop railroad cart) former ACCC Board President; Jeremy Bryant, Planning Director; Bill Callahan, former ACCC Board President; Rodney Taylor, former Amherst County administrator; Charlie Copp, former ACCC Board President; Garett Rouzer, Dalgliesh Gilpin Paxton Architects.
(Credit due but not present for photo) Chad Mooney and Martha Tucker.

The concept of repurposing old train depots has resulted in updated buildings for a variety of purposes in Virginia in Altavista, Appomattox,  Dublin, Farmville, Pulaski, and Purcellville. While the former Amherst train depot will house offices, its most valuable service will be its status as a Visitor Center.

In the Amherst region, the Nelson County Visitor Center has operated since the early 1990s, serving some 25,000 visitors each year. This was the first state certified rural center, and its director, Maureen Kelley, also assisted with the establishment of the Amherst site. The Nelson center is open seven days a week with only three holidays off during the year and offers travel information and even space for recreational vehicles to park overnight. It maintains a business directory and has all tourism brochures of area businesses. Weekly events are posted on their website and sent out to all area businesses so that locals can refer tourists to one another and promote further tourist activity.

“Our visitor centers are critical components of destination marketing, serving as gateways and ‘first-stop’ destinations while also providing real-time information to travelers,” said Rita McClenny, President and CEO of Virginia Tourism Corporation. “A recent study showed that 11% of travel parties that stopped at visitor centers stayed nearly three additional nights in that destination. And with two-thirds of the travelers from our target markets indicating that they used visitor information centers during their travels, that translates to a real revenue generating opportunity for our destinations across the Commonwealth. Virginia’s visitor centers are an absolutely imperative tool in reaching travelers, boosting revenue, and connecting our communities in important and authentic ways.”

Some of the exhibits within the new visitor center.

The visitor centers at Lexington and Buena Vista in Rockbridge County, along with the information center at Natural Bridge, share about 50,000 tourist visits per year. They offer information about area attractions, travel directions, and parking. According to Rockbridge official Jeanne Clark, oftentimes people visit the area for one particular purpose, such as traveling the Blue Ridge Parkway or visiting Natural Bridge, and are unfamiliar with the other attractions in the area. Even local residents are sometimes unaware of new and expanding businesses, so the center helps visitors take advantage of everything the area has to offer.

The new Amherst Visitor Center hopes to capitalize on the same situations and draw many more tourists to the area. Its easy accessibility from both US 29 and US 60 will appeal to travelers who might otherwise consider the county as a place to drive through as they aim elsewhere. Hopefully, now they can learn about Amherst County as a tourist destination in its own right.

“The grand opening of the Train Depot represents the beginning of a whole new era for Amherst County,” Amherst County Administrator Dean Rodgers said recently. “We are reaching out to the region and the state to let people know we are a tourist destination, a growing business destination and ultimately, the place where people will want to educate and raise their children.”

Rodgers went on to say that “Amherst is entering a renaissance, and it’s being led off by this new visitor’s center.  It has been a long road to get the funding to move the old depot structure, renovate it, buy land for it to sit on, and then work through the endless government approvals needed to use the funds.  For the county, this has all been led by David Proffitt, the Deputy County Administrator and county purchasing officer.  David has been here from the beginning untangling the multiple grants and their requirements, the multiple government agencies and their requirements, the citizen and nonprofit groups and their requirements, and the designers and artisans.  Its boggling complexity makes it truly a wonder this project has been completed at all!  David has been ably assisted by our energetic Planning and Zoning Director, Jeremy Bryant. Jeremy has been David’s right hand in almost all the decisions along the way.  All good works boil down to proper planning and proper funding and these two individuals have made it happen for Amherst County.”

Part of the new conference room inside the visitor center.

Claudia Tucker, Chairwoman of the Amherst County Board of Supervisors, said the following recently:

“As the longest serving member of the Board of Supervisors, I am very pleased to have seen this project completed. It will serve as a wonderful resource to tourists coming to visit Amherst County but also to local groups who can use the space for meetings and gatherings. The train depot was important to commerce in its hay day and we look forward to its repurpose as a place to greet and educate our visitors.”

The Town of Amherst has supported the county’s efforts to relocate, restore and occupy the Amherst train station for many years.

According to Jack Hobbs, who was Town Manager of Amherst until recently, the location of the train station, at the intersection of the county’s two major highways is worthy of note. U.S. Rt. 29 goes from Baltimore, MD to Pensacola, FL; and U.S. Rt. 60 originally ran from the Atlantic Ocean at Virginia Beach, VA to the Pacific Ocean in Los Angeles, CA.

“We hope that the Amherst County Chamber of Commerce’s new Visitor Center will enhance the local effort to promote tourism by being a focal point and clearinghouse for the folks who visit our community and the businesses and attractions that serve them. The Town views this facility as an important resource and the Amherst County Chamber of Commerce as a valued ally in our efforts to promote Amherst,” Hobbs said.

“We are thrilled to be partnering with the county to establish a visitor center and our office in the newly renovated and beautifully transformed depot,” stated Vanessa Angus, Director of Amherst County Chamber of Commerce and Tourism.

“Amherst County’s scenic beauty, peaceful lifestyle, recreational opportunities, events and attractions will no longer be missed by passersby. The Amherst County Visitor Center will serve as a beacon to visitors and an introduction to all that Amherst County has to offer,” Angus said.

“I have enjoyed working alongside David Proffitt and Jeremy Bryant to complete the final stage of the depot’s transition as the county’s first official visitor center.  In addition to the new tourism brochure, a new tourism video and website will soon be launched showcasing the county’s greatest attributes.  Other projects on the horizon include achieving the status of a Virginia “certified” visitor center and creating Amherst’s own interpretation of the Love sign,” Angus said.

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