By M. Scott Morris | NEMS Daily Journal
Not long after westbound travelers pass the Mississippi state line on Highway 78, they have an opportunity to relax.
The Mississippi Welcome Center in Tremont is open seven days a week, and its mission is hospitality.
“We are the first impression they have of Mississippi,” said Ann Miller, supervisor. “We had a family from New York. They flew to New Orleans and rented a car, then went to Atlanta and back to Birmingham, then they stopped here.
“A friend in New York had told them that whatever they did, don’t stop in Mississippi,” Miller continued. “But the woman who stopped said, ‘I am going to call back and tell her about the nice people I met in Mississippi.’ That’s what we like to hear.”
A part of the Mississippi Development Authority’s Tourism Division, the Welcome Center can document about 320,000 visitors in 2011.
“That’s just the ones who come in to sign our book,” Miller said.
“Each month, we have people from all 50 states, at least one from each state,” said John Adams, a Welcome Center staff member.
Miller said that 99.9 percent of the visitors are friendly.
“You do have the occasional …” Adams added.
“Person who woke up on the wrong side of the bed,” said staff member Mary Pearl Spencer, “but that doesn’t happen much.”
At the base level, it’s a comfort station with free bathrooms and plenty of room for weary travelers to stretch their legs. The Mississippi Department of Transportation contracts out to provide 24-hour security and to maintain the building and grounds.
The Welcome Center offers more for people who have time to spare. A member of MDA’s Tourism Division’s staff is on duty from 8 to 5 p.m. every day with a free cup of coffee to anyone who asks. Directions are available, and the welcome center passes along special rates when booking hotels for visitors.
Terry Jones and his wife, Linda, from near Arab, Ala., recently stopped by to get Mississippi hat pins for their growing collection.
“I’ve been all over the country and didn’t know about the pins at welcome centers,” Terry Jones said, and pointed toward his wife. “She told me about them.”
Linda Jones got her photograph taken with a cardboard cut-out of Elvis Presley that was located in a corner of the building.
“We had to do that,” she said.
Teresa Alred, a Welcome Center staff member, offered directions to the Joneses. A few minutes later, she helped Tupelo resident Kenneth Steele select Mississippi brochures to be used for a kid’s student project about the state.
“A lot of people will tell other people about us,” Alred said. “They’ll say, ‘You’ve got to see the Welcome Center.’”
Beth Hollingshead of Cabot, Ark., was just such a person. Her friend, Sheila Grinstead of Cabot, had mentioned the stop when they were traveling to Atlanta for a Mary Kay conference.
“She said it was the cutest place in the world,” Hollingshead said. “We couldn’t get here on the way, so we stopped on the way back, and it is adorable.”
Paintings and pottery from Mississippi artists are on exhibit in several areas. The antiques room includes restored furniture and a portrait of Gen. Robert E. Lee, as well as an old-fashioned organ that was refurbished and donated by Tupelo’s Dr. Matt Wesson.
A small bale of cotton sits in front of the fireplace, near a replica of wooden bowls that used to be commonplace in kitchens throughout the South.
“A lady, clearly she had Alzheimer’s or something like that, she saw the bowl and said, ‘Cake, bread, biscuits,’” Miller said. “Her mother taught her back when she was a child, and she remembered. She remembered when she saw that bowl.”
The Welcome Center currently has a display of Mississippi’s culinary offerings in connection with the Tourism Division’s theme for the month. It’ll be replaced in February with a historical display.
“One of our goals is to tell the story of Mississippi,” Alred said.
The Welcome Center and its events are open to Mississippi residents, as well as out-of-state visitors, but the focus is clearly on those who are passing through the Magnolia state. Whether they stay for a few hours or a few days, they’re entitled to friendly faces and honest welcomes.
“We’re the first impression, and we’re going to do our best to make it a good one,” Miller said. “We have changed people’s impressions about Mississippi. It does happen.”