Teton Geotourism Center hopes to lure more visitors

DRIGGS — Hundreds of thousands of visitors drive through Idaho’s Teton Scenic Byway corridor each year, but most never stop — a problem area leaders, organizers and community members want to fix.

The Teton Geotourism Center — a Driggs visitors center that’s several years in the works — is hoped to do just that. The 3,000-square-foot center positioned squarely on Main Street, is designed to increase tourism along the byway, which stretches through five communities from Ashton to Swan Valley.

It’ll accomplish that with a number of exhibits designed to educate visitors about local attractions, promote curiosity about the area and bring awareness to regional gems travelers might otherwise miss.

The center is under construction and slated for an Aug. 1 opening.

“(When) tourists have left Jackson, (and) they’re on their way back to Seattle or Portland, there’s really nothing grabbing their attention and telling them to stop,” project coordinator Doug Self said. “So this is one of the stops we want them to make.”

The center will feature a lobby, a 24-hour service center with restrooms and free Wi-Fi, as well as a gallery of 14 to 15 exhibits of local offerings, such as nearby recreational activities, agriculture, dog sledding and the history of the area’s mountain men.

A plaza out front will serve as a picnic area, space for the local farmers market in the summer, as well as other events throughout the year. It’ll also feature public art, including 8-foot-tall sandhill crane creations, which organizers feel should help draw the eyes of passers-by.

The project is a partnership between the city of Driggs, Driggs Urban Renewal Agency and Teton Valley Chamber of Commerce. It has a $1.2 million budget, which includes about $250,000 for the outside plaza.

It’s being funded through a $616,000 National Scenic Byway discretionary grant the agencies received from the Federal Highway Administration in 2007, $450,000 from the Urban Renewal Agency, funds from the city of Driggs as well as other donations, exhibit coordinator Cynthia Rose said.

A number of volunteers have also helped make the project happen, Rose said. One of those is Sue Tyler, a Tetonia-based artist who’s one of four local artists painting murals inside.

“I think it’ll be pretty unique,” Tyler said. “Especially showing off what the art community in the valley (can provide). Art attracts people to communities … it’s an economic, as well as an aesthetic attraction.”

Organizers say the center is the first of its kind. The term geotourism, as developed by the National Geographic Society is, “travel that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place,” and organizers say it’s prevalent throughout communities along the byway.

“(Geotourism) is the type of tourism that focuses on appreciating the assets of the region,” Rose said. “Whether that’s natural assets, the mountains, the culture, the people or the lifestyle, it’s encouraging people to go out and have authentic experiences, not just drive by and say, ‘Gee, I drove to Yellowstone.’ We want them to get out, walk around maybe float the river — those types of things.”

Work on the center’s exterior should wrap up in July, Rose said, with everything finished in time for the Aug. 1 opening. Initial operating costs will be funded by the city of Driggs, Rose said, and the center will be staffed at first by volunteers. Eventually, organizers hope the center will be self-sustaining, which will likely happen with continued volunteer help and funding from local grants, Rose said. Soon, organizers plan to start looking into various fundraising opportunities, including an annual Driggs nonprofit fundraiser called the Tin Cup Challenge, which is in July.

Ultimately, they’re optimistic the concept will take off.

“I see our purpose as two-fold,” Rose said. “One is to serve tourists and give them what they need. The other is to go out and help local businesses, which generates sales tax. But we’re not a big moneymaker, our purpose isn’t to be a big revenue generator, per se, but to really to help everyone else.”

Reporter Kirsten Johnson can be reached at 542-6757.