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They'll steer you right at I-81 welcome center

July 22, 2000|By RICHARD F. BELISLE

They'll steer you right at I-81 welcome center



GREENCASTLE, Pa. - Need to know where Lester, Pa., is? Ask Nina Mellott.

Working behind the counter at interstate welcome centers for 19 years has made her an expert on finding obscure places on the Pennsylvania road map.

"Lester is a Philadelphia suburb. Finding places like that is one of the biggest challenges we have here," said Mellott, who has been working at the PennDot welcome center on Interstate 81 between Exits 1 and 2 since the fall of 1998. Before that she worked at the welcome center on the Pennsylvania Turnpike on Sideling Hill for 17 years before it closed.

The I-81 welcome center and rest stop opened on the northbound lane south of Greencastle in 1992. Since then, it has become one of the busiest of the 11 centers that serve motorists across Pennsylvania.

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Welcome centers offer tourist information along with rest stops. There is also a network of highway rest stops spread across the state.

"More than 214,000 people visited the Greencastle center in 1999, not counting those who just used the rest stop," said Ray Dunkle, supervisor of the facility. He's one of four full-time and two part-time employees who staff the center 12 hours a day, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., seven days a week.

The center's employees were honored with plaques for making nearly 1,000 hotel reservations for passing motorists in March, the highest number of any of the state's welcome centers, Dunkle said.

Last year the Greencastle staff made more than 5,000 hotel reservations, representing more than $280,000, he said.

It takes less than a month for the center employees to give out more than 9,000 Pennsylvania road maps.

"This is one of the busiest, if not the busiest, welcome center in the state," Dunkle said.

The Greencastle facility is one of two on I-81. The other one, in the southbound lane, is north of Scranton on the state's northern border with New York state.

The busiest time of day is from 3 to 5:30 p.m. when drivers start to think about a place to stay for the night, Dunkle said. They want to drive for another couple of hours but be assured there's a hotel room waiting for them.

Typical of the visitors stopping by Thursday afternoon were Bert and Ellie Schied, a retired couple from Del Ray, Fla. They were on their way to Hamilton, Mass., to visit their son. They stopped to pick up a hotel discount coupon book.

Their favorite hotel is in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

"It's only $44 a night with the coupon and they give you a free cocktail and a free American breakfast," Ellie said.

"We plan our trips up here around it," her husband said.

Merian Craig of Greenbrier, Ga., was on her way to Bangor, Maine. She just stopped for a map.

"I already have my reservations," she said.

Lanier and Margaret Weaver, also from Georgia, said they always stop at the Greencastle Welcome Center on their way to New York state to visit their son.

"It's nice and big, it's clean and the people here are very friendly," Margaret Weaver said.

"Gettysburg, Hershey Park and the Amish country - those are the places people want directions to more than anyplace," said Bonnie Hedrick, a center employee.

Welcome centers and rest stops are familiar places to Hedrick. Before getting her state job in the mid-1980s, she drove over-the-road tractor-trailers across the country.

"I've been in every state, and seen just about every kind of motorist there is," she said. "We're in the trenches here."

"We can spend 15 minutes to a half-hour with some people, do everything we can for them and they still walk out without saying 'thank you,' " Mellott said. "We give them our fullest attention, check all of our resources and they're still not happy."

"The best customer is the one who comes in, grabs a map and goes," Hedrick said.

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