Councilman Johnny Walker told his elected colleagues at an all-day retreat on Saturday that visitors have trouble finding the Welcome Center, which is located behind West Park Square facing the railroad tracks.
“If I’m going to a city, typically you’re going to a downtown area, and I think a lot of people struggle to find it,” Walker said.
Moving the Welcome Center to a spot directly on the Square, he said, would provide more recognition and open up the center’s current building for a restaurant.
“This is just the greatest spot for a restaurant,” Walker said, noting he has been in touch with some restaurateurs who expressed interest in the location.
He points to the character of the historic building, built in 1898 as a train depot, as the selling point for a new unique restaurant. The building boasts original flooring where divots made from coal can still be seen.
Discussions are still preliminary, Walker said, and he’s open to feedback.
“If it’s not what the people want, so be it,” Walker said.
Still, Walker has a vacant property on North Park Square in his crosshairs. If his idea came to fruition, the Welcome Center would move from its current location at 4 Depot St. behind the business of West Park Square to a prime spot between the Earl Smith Strand Theatre and Shillings on the Square.
But that property is owned by Councilman Philip Goldstein, who also owns the majority of the Square.
The lot became the center of controversy between Goldstein and other city officials when Goldstein’s company, Marietta Properties LLC, sued the city in April 2011 claiming a five-story building that Goldstein wanted to construct on the property was not governed by the city’s new height ordinance.
He lost the case in the Cobb Superior Court and on appeal in both the Georgia Court of Appeals and the Georgia Supreme Court. Goldstein was ordered in December to pay $50,000 in attorney’s fees to the city.
Goldstein said he has no interest in selling the property, but said there are other suitable locations for the Welcome Center.
“It makes more sense to have an active business in that location,” Goldstein said of his North Park Square lot.
Walker envisions a center sitting on the Square that would invite in both out-of-town guests and Cobb residents with public restrooms and other services.
Mayor Steve Tumlin said there is merit to moving the center to a spot that is easier to find. There’s a need, he said, for public restrooms for those who frequent the Square and Glover Park.
“It won’t be easy, but it’s doable,” Tumlin said.
Katie Peterson, executive director of the nonprofit Marietta Visitors Bureau, said she is open to suggestions, but any changes would need the approval of her board, which oversees the Welcome Center.
“We think this definitely has legs, but it’s still in the preliminary stages,” said Peterson. “A lot of discussion needs to take place.”
Peterson doesn’t want to take valuable space on the Square away from a potential merchant, but said the Welcome Center’s historic features could still be enjoyed by the public if the building were to become occupied by a for-profit business.
The Marietta Visitors Bureau is funded through the county’s 8 percent bed tax levied on guests who stay in Cobb’s hotels. The bureau has been in its current train depot location since the mid-1980s.
Efforts to revitalize Atherton Square, located between the back of West Park Square businesses and the front of the Welcome Center, could also help visitors find the center and draw shoppers off the Square to the center, Peterson said.
Plans for Atherton Square call for more outdoor seating, landscaping and signs pointing toward the Welcome Center.