In the days when the Springfield Interchange was a seemingly endless construction, an information store opened in the Springfield Mall, providing customers and commuters alike a place to stop for easy information about the massive project in their backyards.
Now, with a 60-day extension in place, those Virginia Department of Transportation employees who work at the store have to find a new place to go to work in the morning before the store closes its branch in the mall.
“What does the community lose by this? There are all kinds of different agencies that thought we’d be around simply because we provide a lot of good information to the community,” said Steve Titunik, VDOT’s information director for the Springfield Interchange project.
Inside the store, shelves and turnstiles are piled high with information about the Interchange and Woodrow Wilson Bridge projects, Titunik said, but customers can also find travel brochures for destinations around the country and across Virginia.
However, the store sublets the lease from VDOT which holds the lease from the mall. The store's lease was originally scheduled to run out on Aug. 1, after which all the brochures, topographical maps and commuter information would be moved down the road to the Springfield Interchange project office on Commerce Street, Titunik said.
A GREAT NEED still exists for a communications station in the mall, Titunik said, considering that once the Mixing Bowl and Interchange are completed, work will begin the installation of HOT lanes on I-95 and I-495.
Ideally, Titunik said he’d like for the information to remain in the mall until early 2007 when the contractor on the HOT lanes project can decide whether to keep the location or move elsewhere.
“We’re trying to keep this in the community for the next few years so they can know what’s going on,” Titunik said of the Interchange’s progress.
Last fall, Titunik said, he met with one of the possible HOT lane developers. They discussed the group’s “need for a public outreach program” to keep Springfield residents apprised of the progress on the Beltway.
For Titunik, the bottom line is keeping the information easily accessible during the next few years, as the Interchange project wraps up and the HOT lanes project gets kicked off.
“This space was designated to distribute information,” he said.
One of the problems that will make it unlikely for the lease to be extended the full five months Titunik is hoping for is the cost of renting the space from VDOT.
“We pay $11,000 each month to rent that space,” he said. If, somehow, additional funding were available, Titunik said, he’d like to see the store open until at least March 2007.
“What we really need is some help with the rent to hold us over a few months,” he said. “This place seems to work well as a central location for information, but if we’re told to walk out in three months and the other group wants the space, it very well might be gone.”
As word begins to spread that the store will be closing, Titunik said, he’s talked with customers who have told him they’re “sad” to see it leaving.
“We get people in here all the time telling me they’d like us to stay,” he said.
ONE SUCH CUSTOMER is Richard McCoy, who was passing through from Dale City on his way to the Walter Reed Medical Center.
"This place is very helpful to me," said McCoy, who stopped in with a question about Metro service. "I've been here a few times. It's easier to come here and pick up information than to go all the way over to the station. With so many people riding the Metro, it seems like it would be a good idea to have it here, but it might not be worth the money."
The Interchange Information Store serves a dual purpose in Springfield: It acts as unofficial tourism guide to the region, said Nancy-jo Manney, executive director of the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce.
“We would like to see the store stay open,” she said. “It’s not only a good place for people to go with questions and concerns about the Interchange, it’s a place where people can go to learn about the area.”
When the store eventually moves to the construction office on Commerce Street, it will contain much of the same information, Manney admitted, but it won’t be as easy to access.
“It’s so easy for people to get to the store in the mall, they can drop by when doing their shopping,” she said.
The lease arrangement is between the Springfield Interchange project and VDOT, said spokesman Ryan Hall.
“The funding for the store comes out of the bigger Interchange project budget, and we’re trying to keep costs down,” Hall said.
While he admits that the store has been “tremendously successful” in keeping Springfield residents informed about progress on the Mixing Bowl, “a time will come when the store will have served its purpose and we won’t need it anymore. Keeping it there isn’t realistic.”
Hall said if some arrangement was made that would keep the store in the mall at a reduced rent price, it may stay longer than the current Nov. 1 deadline. But once the deadline is up, “it’s up to the mall” what happens with the space, he said.
“If the new group comes in and wants to do a similar thing, they may have to find another location,” Hall said. “There’s a lot up in the air right now.”
Supervisor Dana Kauffman (D-Lee) said his office is "working with the mall to see if VDOT could be part of the continued public presence."
Referring to the mall's Web site, which includes a link to the Springfield Interchange store, Kauffman said "it's obviously, on some level, seen as being an attractant to the mall. Given some of the other challenges we're working through, it's good to have something that brings more people in to the mall."