Since the stylish, glass-walled Transit Center first opened in spring 2007 on the east end of the Downtown Mall, the Charlottesville Albemarle Convention & Visitors Bureau has been a tenant in what was the city’s first LEED-certified building. That long-term relationship will soon end.
Even before the pandemic turned the mall into a ghost town, the number of visitors finding the tourist center was down, says Albemarle Supervisor Ann Mallek, who serves on the CACVB board. “The decision was based on the very few interactions held in a building with very expensive rent,” she says.
The bureau announced plans for two mobile visitor centers—likely Ford Sprinter vans—to replace brick-and-mortar locations downtown and in the former Crozet train depot and “to reach and interact with even more visitors, by meeting them where they are located,” according to a release.
Mallek says at events such as the Heritage Harvest Festival, “I was handing out hundreds of brochures. I’m very much in favor of mobile vans.”
Councilor Heather Hill, the city’s representative on the CACVB board, says a pilot test moving the visitors bureau to the Old Metropolitan Center in the center of the mall earlier in the year revealed a “resistance to the public going into buildings.” She favors a hybrid model that offers more flexibility and reduces costs.
“Everyone is rethinking how much office space they need,” she says, “and not expending dollars on space we don’t need.”
The visitors bureau is funded from 30 percent of the city and county’s lodging tax, and pays the city $45,000 a year to rent the Transit Center space, says CACVB Executive Director Courtney Cacatian.
Charlottesville-area lodging occupancy rates through July of this year were down 42.6 percent compared to 2019, says Cacatian, citing an industry report. The average daily rate slid 22.7 percent, and the key industry metric, revenue per available room, is down 55.6 percent for that same period.
“Two years from now, we’ll really be feeling the budget impact from the coronavirus,” she says. “We’re still crunching the numbers to see what we’ll have left over for office space.”
The bureau has a month-to-month lease, and will depart the Transit Center at the end of October, says Cacatian.
When it was first proposed in the early 2000s, many considered the Transit Center a boondoggle to take advantage of $6.5 million in soon-to-expire federal funds for intermodal transportation. When a location on West Main near the Amtrak station—to connect trains or Greyhound coaches to city buses—was not forthcoming, the city decided to proceed on land it owned on the mall.
At the same time, plans were in the works to revitalize the east end of the mall with a music pavilion that would be leased long-term to and run by music/real estate magnate Coran Capshaw. The city now bills the Transit Center’s intermodality as connecting city buses, bikes, and pedestrians.
Philadelphia firm WRT won awards for the design of the 11,200-square-foot space. Besides housing a Catch the CAT hub downstairs, original plans called for a retail space, but other than a brief run for Alex George’s Just Curry in 2008, that hasn’t materialized either.
The visitor center’s departure means the city will soon have more vacant space on the mall. “Obviously it’s a loss for that rental revenue,” says Hill.
As for future occupants of the space, city spokesman Brian Wheeler says, “At this point, they haven’t given notice. We aren’t making plans in absence of notice.”
“It’s kind of an awkward space, with a lot of volume but little square footage,” says Kirby Hutto, who runs the neighboring Sprint Pavilion. Whoever next occupies the space will have to work closely with the Pavilion once concerts begin again, because the Pavilion restricts access when there’s a show, he says.
Hutto thinks it’s important to have a visitors center on the Downtown Mall. “I’d like to see a place where people can ask questions and get directions,” he says. “I think it’s kind of sad there won’t be a visitors center.”
But Cacatian says the bureau will still have some sort of presence on the Downtown Mall. She notes that Arlington’s visitors bureau went mobile in 2010 and hasn’t reopened its brick-and-mortar center. “It’s working great. They’re able to serve 40 percent more people.”
She adds, “The good thing is we have time to figure it out.”