After more than 25 years at the corner of Main and Van Buren, the Brown County Visitors Center is moving.
The Circle K gas station at Washington and Van Buren streets will become its new home over the winter.
Circle K is expected to close Nov. 6, said Jenny Johnson, owner of the Camelot Building where a gas station has stood for at least 35 years.
Administrative staff for Brown County Convention and Visitors Bureau are in the process of moving their offices to the building. They’re setting up in the former Edward Jones office behind the Circle K while the convenience store is being renovated, said CVB Executive Director Jane Ellis.
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The Visitors Center at Main and Van Buren will stay open until the end of the year to answer visitors’ questions and hand out information, Ellis said.
She expects the new Visitors Center to be fully open in time to welcome spring break guests. “I feel really good about it,” Ellis said about the move, which is part of an overall review about how the CVB operates.
The three-story, 11,712-square-foot Professional Building at Main and Van Buren, owned by Andy Rogers, has been for sale for about a year, Rogers said. Veritas Realty, under local agent Wayne O’Hara, has it listed for $895,000 online.It has housed CVB offices since at least 1989, according to newspaper archives.
The move opens up the whole first floor of the building right in the center of town — “a prime retail location,” Ellis said.
Rogers said he hates to see the Visitors Center leave. “It’s a pretty big space. It’s going to be hard to replace,” he said.
But he said he is also open to renting the space once the CVB vacates.
What would he like to see there? “A local business that is vital to downtown,” he said. “I’d like to see it fitting into downtown.”
The T-Shirt Shop used to occupy the Van Buren frontage where the Visitors Center is now, and the center took up the office space behind it, Ellis said. Under a previous CVB director, the CVB took over both spaces, and now, the total space is more than what they need, she said.
Ellis said interest in the building has picked up in recent weeks and some of the people touring it have expressed passion and vision for what it could be.
If it doesn’t become a restaurant or new store, Ellis could see the Professional Building housing more local professional people. The second floor is currently home to offices of an insurance agency, construction company, attorney and nonprofit agency, she said.
Though they’re good for the economy, tourist-based businesses have “kind of pushed the life out of downtown,” Ellis said, remembering when the grocery stores and pharmacies that would attract Brown County locals were closer to the town center than they are now.
Having more professional businesses in that building could help pull those people who are in Nashville for business into the downtown scene in a more natural way, she said.
One idea that’s been tossed around among county leaders is placing county offices in the Professional Building. The prosecutor’s office used to be there decades ago, said Brown County commissioner Diana Biddle.
The historic Brown County Courthouse and the current prosecutor’s office are across the street. Talks have been going on for years about how to meet the long-term space needs of court and related employees and the accessibility requirements of the people they serve.
Biddle said the Professional Building is “an option worth considering.”
“We’re doing our due diligence to see if it’s feasible,” she said.
The Brown County Convention and Visitors Bureau started in a one-room office on Franklin Street in 1984, according to newspaper archives. It had one staff person.The agency is now down to three full-time employees from five, plus some part-time help in the Visitors Center.
Staff vacancies have allowed them to review how they’re spending their time, she said. For instance, the agency has been backing away from planning and running events, sticking closer to the mission of getting “heads in beds” and marketing the county so that work, such as promoting the county through social media, didn’t suffer, Ellis said.
With the rise of digital media and the launch of a new visitors’ app, walk-in traffic has decreased in the center, too. “That’s not how people are getting their information anymore,” Ellis said.
The last time the CVB talked about space was when the Brown County History Center was built in 2014-15, she said. A space study was conducted with the idea of building a Visitors Center at the corner of Gould and Van Buren on the north edge of town, but the cost was too great to justify, Ellis said.
CVB leaders determined that an ideal location would be on the south end of town, where most visitors arrive, she said. The closest site that could become available was the Camelot Building, so CVB board member Bruce Gould called Johnson to talk about the possibilities, Ellis said.
“Their (Circle K) lease was up for renewal and they made the choice to leave based on just the small lot available,” Johnson said.
Ellis said having a center at Washington and Van Buren will be “a different aesthetic” for that corner, improving the main gateway to downtown and encouraging guests to visit that end of it.
The gas pumps at Circle K will be removed and the center will gain parking — something it didn’t have much of downtown with the competition for on-street spots.
A loading zone for motorcoaches has just been added in front of the Fudge Kitchen a couple doors north, making an easy walk for large groups to pick up information at the new center, she said.
Circle K corporate headquarters in Columbus did not answer calls seeking comment on the future of the downtown Circle K or the employees who work there.The store used to be owned by Johnson’s father, Richard L. Johnson. He had bought Shell service stations in downtown Nashville and on State Road 46 East in the early 1980s, according to Brown County Democrat archives.
Johnson, president of Johnson Oil Co., had purchased a Shell gasoline distributorship in the 1950s, and by 2001, he had expanded it into a 225-store Bigfoot convenience store chain, according to the archives.
He sold the chain in 2001 to an operator of stores including Circle K; then, he formed a Columbus-based venture capital firm.
In 1987, Johnson Oil Co. doubled the size of the Camelot Building by adding a 5,000-square-foot second floor — which now houses a spa and a design firm — and added 1,000 square feet to the ground floor.
Q: When is the current Visitors Center closing?
A: Around the third week of December, said Brown County Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Jane Ellis. The lease at the Professional Building downtown extends until the end of the year. Businesses that have displays or brochures there should plan to come pick them up by that time, she said. During January, February and March, calls will still be answered but the center will be closed, and walk-up visitors will be directed to the new center under construction at Washington and Van Buren, she said.
Q: Will there be a public bathroom inside the new Visitors Center?
A: Maybe, Ellis said. Site plans aren’t complete yet, but if it’s possible, she said she’d like to keep one of the bathrooms in the old Circle K convenience store for public use. “Where’s the bathroom?” is the No. 1 question Visitors Center staff get, she said.
Q: Will the leaf sculpture outside the current Visitors Center stay at Main and Van Buren?
A: Yes, Ellis said. She is planning for other ways to bring a “wow factor” to the new Visitors Center at Washington and Van Buren, mostly in the way visitors consume information inside — like interactive displays that inquire about their interests and help them decide which Brown County activities are right for them.
Q: Will you save money by moving the Visitors Center?
A: Eventually, Ellis said. The CVB pays $4,000 per month, including utilities, for the whole ground floor of the Professional Building, she said. It will pay $1,250 per month for the Circle K, not including utilities, and they’re not sure yet what those will cost, she said. Money to pay those bills comes from innkeepers’ tax. Renovations of the gas station convenience store will come from that fund, too, and those are unknown costs at this time, Ellis said. No money has been put into the Visitors Center since they opened the doors 20-plus years ago, she said, so some well-used items, like display racks, will likely be replaced, too. The build-out will probably be conducted in phases, she said.
Reporter Suzannah Couch contributed to this story.