NEWPORT, R.I. (WPRI) — The Gateway Transportation and Visitors Center in downtown Newport will not reopen in 2021, Eyewitness News has learned, and the first floor of the space is up for grabs.
The center has been closed since mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The decision to keep it closed was accelerated by the pandemic, according to Discover Newport President and CEO Evan Smith, but he said the change was also due in part to evolving technology.
“Certainly, it’s not what it was in the 1980s when the Gateway Center was conceptualized, before cell phones and computers and other things like that,” Smith told Eyewitness News in a video call on Tuesday. “The practicality of a brick-and-mortar visitor center has been on the decline for some time.”
Smith wanted to make it clear to residents and visitors that Discover Newport is not out of business, just changing its business model, saying the focus now needs to reflect the its core mission of being a sales and marketing company.
“Just as other travel marketing companies across the United States and across the world are changing their models, we’re having to change our models to fit our new budget, and to fit the changes and the evolution of what’s happening in the travel industry due to COVID,” Smith explained.
Smith said Discover Newport is reviewing and exploring alternate options “that are much smaller, more efficient and more cost effective” for visitor information for summer 2021 and beyond, assuming its budget will recover enough to allow for that.
“Some people look at this as a sad chapter,” he added. “I look at it as a great opportunity, the next chapter in the city of Newport and what could happen downtown.”
That could mean mobile visitor service kiosks around the city, as well as an expansion of private businesses serving as outlets for information.
“Kind of like the way restaurants are to food trucks, we want to take the visitor information to the people very much the way food trucks bring people food to them,” Smith said.
He also said the pandemic has resulted in an increasingly “touchless society,” which forced Discover Newport to downsize. In a memo about the visitor center, the company said it will trend toward “greener and cleaner” ways of doing business.
“Environmentally, the trend is to move away from circulating high volumes of paper and focus more on recyclable products that can be reused,” the memo stated. “Moving forward, because of infectious diseases like COVID, consumers will be reluctant to touch products beyond their own electronic devices.”
Unfortunately, a more cost-effective model does mean layoffs, according to Smith.
In a fully staffed summer season, visitor services, sales and marketing make up almost 30 full- and part-time employees, he said, but a “new-normal” for Discover Newport may mean only 10 or 11 staff members return.
“A lot” of employees have been furloughed or laid off, Smith added, leaving only five currently staffing Discover Newport.
In addition to the first floor of the visitors center being available, Smith said Discover Newport’s administrative offices on the second floor may also move. He said it depends on who takes over the first floor of the building on America’s Cup Avenue, which will eventually be decided by the city, in consultation with residents and the City Council.
“I think this is an opportunity for the city to look and see whether it wants to put more emphasis on arts and culture, whether it wants to put more emphasis on lodging, whether it wants to look at turning it into an attraction,” Smith added.
Smith noted that the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) will still have a hub at the visitors center, no matter who moves in.