Tourists can get quick help – or get married – at Travel Salem’s new visitor center

Most tourism groups don’t have a drive-thru window.

It’s a unique feature of Travel Salem’s new visitor center, which recently opened in a renovated former Chase Bank in downtown Salem.

The drive-thru will let employees quickly assist visitors seeking information about places to visit in the region, or those who might want a heavy stack of brochures to distribute elsewhere. But Travel Salem leaders hope to put it to a more whimsical use as well: a wedding destination.

The idea came up as the team was contemplating how to use their expanded space and the features that came with a former bank building. The thought was: Why not?, said Irene Bernards, chief marketing officer.

“Offering this is unique,” Bernards said.

Weddings won’t debut until Valentine’s Day 2024, but the center, at 630 Center St. N.E., is now open to visitors weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Leaders of the tourism nonprofit hope the expanded space will allow them to better assist visitors and Salem residents seeking help on how to best enjoy their time in the mid-Willamette Valley.

“Salem gets a bad rap sometimes,” Bernards said. People often see it just as the state capital, an otherwise boring town without much going on. But cultural events, a growing culinary scene and regional outdoor, agrotourism and winery activities leave plenty for visitors to do, as an array of brochures lining the walls of the visitor center shows.

“This space really gives us the chance to walk through the area with folks that are coming in,” said Anton Cobb, community relations specialist with Travel Salem.

Susan Tanabe, visitor services for Travel Salem, and Emily Lauer, guest services coordinator, talk behind the desk of Travel Salem’s new visitor center in downtown Salem on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Salemites often don’t realize the impact tourism has on the local economy, often because people are traveling in small groups or visiting family rather than coming to town for a single attraction or major event, Bernards said.

In 2022-23, tourism brought $782 million of economic activity to the region, according to a Travel Salem report.

The new visitor center opened to the public in May, though some details, including free wi-fi, are still being sorted out. Inside, people can play cornhole or watch videos about Salem’s history and culture in the former bank vault.

“There’s space to come in and sit down,” Bernards said.

A large display in the shape of a wine bottle in the center of the room showcases the region’s winemaking process. It came from the Willamette Valley Visitors Association, which had the piece made for display in airports. After some time on the road, it had been sitting in storage.

Bernard sits on the organization’s board and convinced them to donate it to Travel Salem.

Two currently empty display cases will hold exhibits from local cultural institutions like Willamette Heritage Center.

Travel Salem purchased the building in 2022, spending about $2 million to buy and renovate the 19,000-square-foot space.

They’d been seeking a building downtown for a while without success, Bernards said, when they visited the location. As executives stood outside, a man walking his dog stopped and told them, “Please buy this building — this area needs some reinvestment.”

Portions of the former bank still await remodeling, including some basement offices and the west side of the building, which is available to lease.

Travel Salem’s new visitor center at 630 Center St. N.E. was formerly a Chase Bank before sitting vacant for years (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Travel Salem’s board thought owning a building made sense, Bernards said. The organization has existed since 1984 and has been paying rent since its inception.

Its mortgage payment at the new location is roughly the same as what it had paid in rent, and in about 15 years when the debt is paid off, it will be able to reinvest that money into marketing and tourism promotion, she said.

Upstairs offices host the organization’s staff of about 13, who market the region and work with larger events like Ironman.

Bernards said as Salem has grown and Portland has seen challenges, the area is becoming more attractive to tourists.

“Salem is becoming a preferred location,” she said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.