Travelers headed south on Interstate 75 see the signs touting Macon as “Where Soul Lives” but when they get to the city’s Welcome Center no one is there to greet them.

In June, the building’s HVAC system went down and still hasn’t been repaired six months later.

“There’s a question of who owns the building,” Visit Macon president and CEO Gary Wheat told his board earlier this month.

The Georgia Department of Transportation does not have the building listed in its inventory, Wheat said.

Since 1971, travelers have been stopping for a bathroom break in Monroe County about 15 miles north of Macon.

While they stretch their legs, they can stroll through the visitor’s center and learn about the many attractions just down the road in Macon-Bibb County.

At the 1969 groundbreaking, the rest stop was touted as the first of its kind inside Georgia’s boundaries. The state had already been operating several centers at its borders but this was the only one built to promote a local region of Georgia, according to The Telegraph archives.

At the time, the newspaper reported the project was spearheaded by the Macon Chamber of Commerce and the State Highway Department in 1967.

The cost of the $500,000 project was divided in a 90-10 split with the chamber, through the Macon-Bibb County Industrial Authority, paying about $24,000 and the rest in matching funds from Georgia’s highway department and the Federal Bureau of Roads, according to the newspaper archives.

The government money was to fund the digging of a well, bathrooms, air conditioning, paving, parking, picnic areas, lighting and land acquisition.

The “title to the facility… will be held by the state highway department under a 50-year lease agreement with the chamber,” the paper reported.

After a Center for Collaborative Journalism inquiry, GDOT District 3 Communication Officer Penny Brooks emailed a response from a district engineer about the ownership of the building: “Unfortunately, there is no written documentation that anyone can find. Chances are that this was a ‘handshake deal’ that was done in the mid-1980’s when that building was constructed as Georgia DOT built it on behalf of the City of Macon.”

But newspaper archives show the building originally known as the “Tourist Information Center” was completed in 1971 and the state spent an additional $100,000 to expand and double the restroom capacity in 1978.

According to additional newspaper stories, the information center part of the building closed in 1978 when Macon and Bibb County stopped funding the operation. Local leaders felt they weren’t getting “their money’s worth” out of the $57,000 in operating expenses although the center had welcomed its 7 millionth visitor months earlier.

The Welcome Center was then operated “solely by the state,” the Telegraph reported.

In June of 1984, the Macon Convention and Visitors Bureau asked the state to allow them to open back up. CVB president Keith Stringfellow proposed that spending $62,000 to renovate the building and $49,000 to staff it could generate $72 million in economic impact.

When the Georgia Department of Transportation met in Macon that year, Commissioner Tom Moreland announced that Macon could once again staff the center. Employees resumed handing out pamphlets to passersby in hopes they would stop and spend some time and money in the midstate.

In 1994, the CVB’s Janice Marshall called the center the “most effective marketing tool we’ve got” because of the personal contact staff had with travelers.

After learning the center has been closed for a half-year, the now-retired Marshall said: “I’m sure it’s frustrating for the CVB.”

The state tracks the number of cars coming into the rest stop, which averages about 600,000 per year, Wheat said. The Welcome Center itself drew in about a tenth of those each year, he said.

Wheat has a meeting scheduled next month with transportation officials about the status of the center.

Although tourism numbers from the past six months are up in downtown Macon, there’s no way to know if the community has missed opportunities with the Welcome Center being closed.

According to the GDOT engineer: “As the Welcome Center benefits all travelers within the state, Georgia DOT will end up bearing the cost.”

The entire HVAC system, including the air handlers, must be replaced and the state will solicit proposals from mechanical contractors before proceeding, the email stated.

Confusion over the building ownership has delayed the repairs, Wheat said.

In the meantime, a painting of a faceless Antebellum couple on a “Welcome to Macon” sign beckoning tourists to pose for pictures sits outside the locked doors.

Wheat says a committee is currently looking at additional and more modern ways to market the city as they wait for the HVAC system to be fixed.

“The minute they can flip a switch we’ll be right back in.”