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New welcome center helps visitors get in Savannah spirit

Oak trees with Spanish moss, a replica of the St. Simons Island Lighthouse and Forrest Gump are just a few of the unique displays that greet travelers at Georgia’s newest Welcome Center on Interstate 95 south, which officially opened its doors on Friday morning.

Located two miles south of the South Carolina state line near the State Route 21 interchange in Port Wentworth, the center has been under construction for nearly two years, but in the works much longer, according to Ann Purcell, secretary of the Georgia DOT State Transportation Board.

“It’s been many years back that this project has been worked on, probably as much as 11 or 12 years back,” said Purcell, who cut the ribbon during the grand opening ceremony Friday alongside about a dozen other state and local officials.

“It got derailed and when we pulled our group together here on the coast again I said this project isn’t going to be derailed. We’ve got the engine going and we’ve got the caboose back here and all the parts have fallen into place and you saw that today.”

The 22,216 square-foot building is more than four times as big as the previous center and cost about $10.2 million to complete with funds coming from the Georgia LOGO program, which offers businesses advertising on signs approaching exits along highway interchanges.

“Those funds come back to us and they’re used to promote the tourism for the Department of Transportation through centers like this,” Purcell said, noting that the project came in under budget.

The center itself could become a destination with a variety of photo opportunities that, aside from the trees and lighthouse, feature a trolley car that visitors can sit in as well as a bench to share with a life-size Forrest Gump complete with his box of chocolates. Interactive kiosks, murals and videos are all designed to inspire travelers to spend a little time and money in Savannah and surrounding areas.

The displays inside the center were created through a public-private partnership with the Georgia Department of Transportation, the Golden Isles Convention and Visitors Bureau and Visit Savannah.

“It’s been a very impressive effort the last couple of years working with the state and their design team to have a state of the art and one-of-a-kind facility. We’re very pleased with it,” said Visit Savannah president, Joe Marinelli.

Purcell, who knocked down the first brick at the old welcome center when the project started in 2015, said she’s excited and ready to welcome the estimated two million visitors the center gets each year.

“It’s just marvelous to see a facility that is now going to be an eye catcher and hopefully our tourists when they stop in, will want to stay around and go see the various things throughout the coast,” she said.

“I’m thrilled with it. I’m glad that it’s officially open and that’s the best part of it all, to see the product of many people’s work.”

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