COLUMBIA — Among the Columbia maps and pamphlets available at the Lake of the Woods Visitor Center is a small blue plaque that reads, “Volunteers Are A Work of Heart.”
Volunteer William “Bill” Pauls, 60, has worked at the visitor’s center for seven years, and he takes the motto to heart.
The Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau runs the visitor’s center, located near Interstate 70, and the staff includes volunteers from the Columbia Hospitality Corps. Despite having more than 50 volunteers from the corps, the visitor’s center has trouble filling its work schedule.
The visitor’s center will be re-evaluated in January 2011 to see if it will remain open.
“I think it would be a loss for the city,” Pauls said.
Lorah Steiner, executive director of the Visitors Bureau, said the visitor’s centers should be open every day.
“The worst thing that can happen is that someone comes to the door and it is closed,” she said. “We are trying to look at how we can rectify that.”
The visitor’s center provides visitors and Columbia residents with information about the city, including attractions and businesses. The job gives volunteers a chance to talk to potential Columbia visitors.
“It is very important to get information to people who are traveling I-70,” Steiner said. “(The volunteers) do a great job making people feel welcome.”
Pauls said some of the center’s traffic comes from travelers on I-70 deciding whether to stay in Columbia.
“We get a lot of people who are deciding to stay here or move on,” Pauls said.
The visitor’s center struggles with visibility because it is located in a strip mall, Pauls said. He said most people think it would be its own building and drive right by.
Steiner said she is working on getting better signage for the visitor’s center to make it easier to find.
“We are trying to do everything we can to make sure people find this center,” Steiner said.
Keeping the center open is not expensive, Steiner said. The visitor’s center costs about $5,000 per year in rent, and a volunteer staff helps to keep expenses relatively low, Steiner said. Her main concern is filling all of the volunteer hours.
The visitor’s center strives to be open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. The volunteer corps requires its members to sign up for one four-hour volunteer shift a month.
“We have a great volunteer corps,” Steiner said. “But we need to expand that pool.”
Some volunteers work once a month, while others take multiple shifts.
Pauls averages about two shifts per week and said he tries to fill in when he can.
On Sunday, Aug. 22, the visitor’s center did not open because no one signed up to work.
Pauls said Sundays are the hardest to fill because people have church and other obligations.
Pauls is retired, like many of the other volunteers, and has lived in Columbia for 26 years. For him, volunteering at the visitor’s center is more than just work.
“I wanted to take my last paycheck,” he said, “and then do things for the satisfaction of doing them.”
For Pauls, the visitor's center is beneficial in two ways: It helps Columbia visitors, and it gives retirees, like him, a chance to contribute.
“I’d love us to stay open,” Pauls said. “Working at a place like this is nice to give back.”