First impressions count. Arrive at any airport or train station, and you immediately start forming opinions of your destination. Is it clean and modern, warm and welcoming? How does the place make me feel? Are the locals proud of themselves?
Well, the same “first impressions” rule is true when you are driving.
“Welcome to New Jersey,” said the perky young lady behind the Tourism Desk at the first service area in New Jersey when we pulled off Interstate 80 recently driving from Pennsylvania. I was just looking for the rest room, but this gal made we feel welcome, offering me maps and brochures and ready to answer any questions I might have about the Garden State.
I got the same vibe arriving in Maryland, driving south on I-95 where a big, mall-sized rest area in the median offered me about a dozen restaurant choices, relatively cheap gas and room to stretch my legs. On the far side of the building there was parking for about 50 trucks and electric hook-ups so they didn’t need to idle their refrigerator units.
In Virginia, the Tourist Center looked like a mini-Monticello and the helpful staffers were ready to answer all of our questions about our planned tour of Civil War battlefields. These local guys were better than TripAdvisor and the AAA Guidebook.
Contrast that with the “first impression” we give tourists arriving on I-95 in Connecticut.
On crossing the New York state line, they will immediately hit bumper-to-bumper traffic, for no apparent reason, no matter the time of day. No accidents, just normal conditions on our major interstate.
The large electronic sign flashes “Delays: Exit 2 -16, next 16 miles” as visitors inch along over the Mianus River Bridge, site of the 1983 collapse of a span that killed three. But there’s no plaque or historical marker noting the tragedy. In fact, the bridge has been renamed after State Senator Michael J. Morano, as if a name change would erase what happened.
“Are we there yet?” the kids ask from the back seat. “Not even close,” moans Dad, wondering if they’ll ever get to The Cape. “I just hate this traffic,” he moans. “But Dad, I gotta go,” says Junior. “I’ve been ‘holding it’ ever since The Cross Bronx!”
Then, like a mirage on the horizon, Dad sees hope: not a break in the endless traffic, but the state’s first service area in Darien. “Hang on Junior, we’re stopping in just a minute.”
Not to buy gasoline, of course. You never want to buy gasoline in Connecticut. No, these folks are in the tourist equivalent of “fly-over” mode. They’re just stopping to “rest” and maybe pick up a map and a snack.
Arriving at the shiny new Service Area, complete with solar collectors and a Tesla charging station, they are met with such culinary options as “It’s Sugar,” “Chipotle” (hold the e coli, please) and the recently closed “Cheese Boy.” Yummy.
But inside there is no perky tourism guide, just a few brochures strewn about. No, we don’t have the funding to guide the tourists. Imagine the business the state’s $8 billion tourism industry loses because we can’t staff a simple information desk at a service area where thousand stop each day.
First impressions do count. And the first impressions we give visitors to our state aren’t really positive, are they?
Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media. Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien Representative Town Meeting.