Contributed by Shahan Jon,

Mount Shasta

For the past four years until recently I worked at the Mount Shasta Visitor Center and experienced firsthand the increase of tourists to our area and the need for expanded services to accommodate them. In my opinion, it is now time to create a county-wide visitor center based in Mount Shasta that is independent and works closely with organizations, businesses, and chambers of commerce throughout Siskiyou County, as well as Discover Siskiyou and county economic development agencies.

At the Mount Shasta Visitor Center this past summer we introduced hundreds of visitors weekly to our area. One of the comments I repeatedly heard was “Wow ... thanks for all the information; we didn’t know there was so much to see and do here. We’re definitely coming back to spend a longer time.”

It was a rare day that I didn’t welcome people from at least four or five different countries as well as diverse regions of the United States. Mount Shasta received visitors from around 30 nations this past year including Germany, Japan, Australia, Canada, Russia, China, Ukraine, France, Brazil, South Africa, Ecuador, India, to name just a few. I once asked a group of young men from Nepal how they had heard about Mount Shasta. The leader dismissively waved his hand and said, “Well, everybody knows about Mount Shasta!”

For a number of years now, the Mount Shasta Visitor Center operating under the local Chamber of Commerce has made a real effort to support our whole region. Brochures and maps produced by neighboring towns, organizations such as the Trail Association, and the State of California tourism agencies have been stocked.

Information on the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway, Castle Crags State Park, Lava Beds National Monument, wildlife refuges, and Lassen and Crater Lake National Parks has also been available. Handouts that promote the whole county have been produced, for example one which lists all the museums in Siskiyou County.

During this very busy past summer the Visitor Center operated out of the small front room of the local Chamber of Commerce located at the corner of Pine and Lake Streets. As well as working with all the tourists, the three part-time staff people were also expected to do chamber work such as managing the city-wide gift certificate program. Taking into account the current trends we are experiencing, it seems necessary and appropriate to move visitor services out of that facility and separate its management from the local Chamber of Commerce. This would allow the local chamber to focus upon its goals of supporting local business, fulfilling its contractual obligations to the city, and sponsoring events.

This separation would allow the current visitor center to develop fully into a county-wide center that works closely with Discover Siskiyou, County economic development agencies, and California state agencies. In some ways, the local visitor center has already been operating independently of the Chamber. For example, the Mount Shasta Tourist Map available to all visitors was produced by staff outside the office on our own time. Staff meetings to problem solve and check-in with other team members have been held on our own time in our homes.

In my opinion, this is not the time to wait for a shiny new building. We can start now with a simple plan to create a county-wide visitor center. First, acknowledge that the Mount Shasta Visitor Center is the embryo of the county-wide center and separate it from the local Chamber of Commerce. Next, rent suitable space in downtown Mount Shasta. The location must be in Mount Shasta since this is the area attracting the bulk of visitors.

As visitors stay longer, they can be directed throughout the county. The space needs to be large enough to house displays, accommodate all the literature, storage, office area, and to have a large area that is designated for products to be sold.

This area would provide an opportunity for local artisans and businesses to showcase and sell their products on consignment; it would also generate income for the Visitor Center without an outlay of capital.

At the Mount Shasta Visitor Center I was responsible for identifying and ordering products for sale. As our space was very limited, this was a challenge. I am well aware that some locals harbor hard feelings because their products were not selected. With more space and a consignment system, the opportunity to participate could be open. Imagine a center that has a section for books by local authors, another for prints, cards, magnets, and more by local artists, a place that displays the unique creativity of Siskiyou County in its many forms.

I believe the most viable management plan for a county-wide visitor center would be a management team composed of three or four part-time employees who together represent a broad spectrum of talents and life experience and who work the daily operations of the center and base policy decisions on that experience. A team of volunteers could be created to help staff the center during the busiest seasons.

I do not think hierarchical management is effective, and this was demonstrated this summer at the Mount Shasta Visitor Center which is managed by the local Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors. On a practical level this meant that policy decisions affecting daily operations were made by busy, well-intentioned board members who did not work at the center and had little contact with it. The results of this management this past summer included: a reduction of services as hours of operation were cut; a loss of revenue as the restocking of best-selling items was curtailed; staff burnout; and ultimately the loss of two of the three senior staff.

Funding for a county-wide visitor center could come from product sales, Transient Occupancy Tax, donations and grants, and fund-raising events.

Some may argue a center isn’t necessary because information is available online. To them I say: a center is about much more than information. It’s the shared laugh, the delight of connecting diverse cultures, the personal touch, a face to go with an experience. I didn’t always know this. When I was first asked “May we have a photo?” I thought they wanted me to use their camera and photograph them, but “No, no, you!” I have to laugh when I think of all the vacation albums I’m in now: me with a Japanese elder, retirees from Florida, a family from India, the girls from Argentina, a Chinese family, the guys from Estonia ... I came to realize that the real work at a visitor center is to hold the spirit of place and share it. Every worker at a center is a kind of ad hoc ambassador for the region they represent. A vibrant visitor center adds richness and depth to a tourist’s experience and is essential to any region wishing to develop tourism.

As I’ve spoken to townsfolk about a possible county-wide visitor center I’ve been told many times “Oh, that idea has been floating around a long time.” And then, silence. So here’s the point: the time to take that idea and bring it into fruition is now. The seeds have already been planted. Let’s help something wonderful grow, The Mt. Shasta Regional Visitor Center.

To reach Shahan, email shahanjon@snowcrest.net.