For years the Howard County Welcome Center operated from a small and rather unwelcoming space on the basement level of Ellicott City's old Post Office on Main Street. A fallout shelter sign by the entrance set a less-than-inviting tone.
Despite the cramped quarters and lack of visibility from Main Street, more than 20,000 people a year stop by to learn about shops, restaurants, theaters, inns and attractions in Howard County and beyond. Visitors have come from 39 states, 18 countries and three territories.
Now, after 15 years in the basement, the Welcome Center is expanding and sprucing up to meet the growing demand for its services.
Construction began last summer on a $325,000 project that will enable it to move from the crowded lower level of the old Post Office to the main level, where it will have four times the space and better visibility, including an entrance from Main Street.
The work is also helping to preserve the granite-clad Post Office, which opened in 1940 and is listed on the Maryland Inventory of Historic Properties.
Rachelina Bonacci, executive director of Howard County Tourism and Promotion, said the new quarters will help her organization keep pace with the increasing number of visitors to Ellicott City and other parts of Howard County.
Once construction is complete, she said, Howard County will have a welcome center that's more appropriate for the places and events it promotes.
"It's a new opportunity to tell the story of Howard County," she said. "As we've become more popular, and the town has become more popular, we realized we would need more space. … If we have more than two families and two strollers at a time now, it gets a little snug."
The need was not just for more space but a "richer experience" for visitors, Bonacci said. While the basement location may have served its purpose years ago, she said, the county has increasingly begun to appear on 'Best of' lists, such as Money magazine's 2010 ranking of Columbia and Ellicott City as No. 2 on its list of "America's Best Places to Live." And that translates to more visitors.
"We needed a space that better reflects the county and makes a better first impression," she said. "It has to look more welcoming."
With high ceilings and tall windows that let in plenty of natural light, she said, the main floor of the old Post Office makes a more gracious welcome center, while imparting a greater sense of history and retaining the building's basic use as a center of information.
"It's a space you want to spend time in."
According to Bonacci's office, 10,000 people work in Howard County's tourism industry. The county gets 700,000 "visitor stays" a year at hotels, motels, inns, campgrounds and retreats, and visitors spend $780 million a year for transportation, lodging, dining, shopping and entertainment.
The building at 8267 Main St. was constructed in 1940 at a cost of $101,000, including purchase of the land, to serve as the post office for Ellicott City, the county seat. The county purchased it for $640,000 three years ago, after the U.S. Postal Service decided to move out. A Welcome Center has been on the lower level since 1996, but the move by the Postal Service, completed in 2009, freed up space for a new use on the main level. The Ellicott City post office is now located at 3375 Ellicott Center Drive, off Ridge Road.
The Welcome Center is operated by the Howard County Tourism Council, a private organization that is recognized by Howard County government and the Maryland Office of Tourism Development as the official "Destination Marketing Organization" for Howard County.
Maryland's General Assembly authorized two bond sales to help pay for the expansion. The center will share the first level with Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, who has an office there.
The new Welcome Center is expected to open on or around Nov. 25, in time for the holiday shopping season. When the move is complete, the building's main level will be open to the public and the old basement level will be reserved for tourism office staffers and storage.
Bonacci said she'll use the additional space to increase the number of maps, brochures and interpretive exhibits about Howard County. She'll have an area where groups can gather, possibly for the start of walking tours. She's planning events that will encourage people to visit again and again, such as concerts and art exhibits. Outside, she said, there will be an area for motor coaches and school buses, making it easier for groups to stop.
Bonacci and Victoria Goodman, another tourism director, said they believe a welcome center should be a place to linger and learn as much as possible about an area.
A welcome center "needs to entertain its visitors," Bonacci said." It needs to be an attraction unto itself. It should be the starting point to learn about Howard County."
"Recent industry studies show that the more time a visitor spends in a Welcome Center, the more time and money they spend in that destination because they are better informed," Howard County Executive Ken Ulman said in a statement.
Arris, a Baltimore-based design studio, is the architect for the expansion. Its design calls for preserving the character of the old post office interior while upgrading it for its new use.
Among the building's most significant features are two commemorative murals, which are being preserved as part of the work. They were commissioned by the federal government to tell the story of Howard County. The muralist was Petro Paul De Anna, then in his early 20s.
The mural on the west wall depicts the town's beginnings in 1772. The town's founders, brothers John, Joseph and Andrew Ellicott, are shown clearing land for a mill, mixing mortar and building a house. A Conestoga wagon is shown heading down a dirt trail along the Patapsco River.
The mural on the east wall shows the town as it was in the early 1940s, when the building opened. Visible in the composition are silos of the flour mill, the steeple of old St. Paul's Catholic Church, the original Quaker meetinghouse, the Old Town Hall, bridges across the Patapsco, mill workers' houses, stores on Main Street and the old train station.
Besides providing more information about Howard County in the new space, Bonacci said, she hopes to increase the amount of information about surrounding areas. She said visitors to a region rarely pay attention to county lines, and welcome centers around the state typically promote activities beyond governmental borders.
"It's all part of the experience that you're offering," she said. "It's part of the impression that you make."
The Howard County Welcome Center, 8267 Main Street in Ellicott City, is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Thursday, from 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and noon to 5 p.m. on Sundays and holidays. More information is available at http://www.VisitHowardCounty.com.
Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.