Behind the long, wood-paneled counter covered in pocket maps and tourism brochures stands a middle-aged woman with not much to do but practice her pleasant smile.
A swirling mass of men, with seemingly bored wives and children in tow, brushes past the woman. Occasionally, one of them stops to ask directions to the camping gear department.
Nobody asks for directions to the Richmond Black History Museum or the Valentine Richmond History Center. One man asks for a map.
It's a typical Saturday afternoon at the Richmond Visitor's Center, located in Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World on Interstate 95 in Hanover County.
The Bass Pro location is the result of the vision of Jack Berry, president of the Richmond Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau, but he's definitely dreaming bigger lately than a kiosk in an overgrown sports shop.
Last month, City Council helped Berry take one more step toward the real goal: It passed a resolution in support of a single, unified historic tourism and visitors' center. A destination in itself, it also would serve as a hub from which to send tourists forth to the scores of museums and historic sites throughout the region.
That resolution supports Berry's application for Virginia Department of Transportation funding to help transform the old Robinson House, a 19th-century house on the grounds of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, into a modern, 1,500-square-foot destination with regularly updated exhibits that feature other museums and venues across the region and state.
“The grant, hopefully it will be accepted,” Berry says. If successful, it could be the first of many steps toward rebranding Richmond as a tourism destination rather than an afterthought.
“It's critical mass,” Berry says, explaining the choice of location on the Boulevard. “You've got — look at the hundreds of thousands of people drawn by [the museum's] special exhibits — you've got the other museums in the area and you're right off the interstate.”
Alex Nyerges, director and chief executive of the art museum, says the site is a perfect fit. “We want people who are coming through Richmond to be able to take advantage of all of the amenities available across the Commonwealth,” he says. “We've begun conversations with sister museums to possibly lend interpretive materials.”
And when this visitors' center opens, just like the Bass Pro center, Berry says, this is not the final word on Richmond tourism.
“We'll always look at critical mass,” he says. “If you've got critical mass with high-speed rail, a black history museum, the slave trail — today, Main Street Station may not make sense; in a couple of years it may make all the sense.”