That's No Rest Stop, It's A 'Travel Plaza'

Mercer 9967

Courtesy HMS Host

The sparkling new Delaware Travel Plaza.

The Delaware Travel Plaza was never so classy. It just reopened, and now the 42,000-square-foot roadside stopover may just be worth an extended stay.

The Delaware Travel Plaza was never so classy. When the rest stop opened off I-95 outside Newark, Del., in 1964, it was just a gloomy gas station, restaurant and some restrooms. It's just reopened, and now the 42,000-square-foot roadside stopover may just be worth an extended stay.

The place looks like an art museum, even an airport, with a sign that says "Welcome to Delaware." Inside, there are eight places to eat and four shops -- enough variety to satisfy a troop of Boy Scouts returning from their 100th-anniversary Jamboree in Washington, D.C.

Csaba Roszik from Troop 114 in Massachusetts likes it way better than a rest stop earlier in the trip. "We stopped in New York coming here, and it was really bad," he says. "Really dark and grimy. This one's really light and you just walk in and you're just, like," -- he gasps -- "It just takes your breath away."

The Delaware Welcome Center Travel Plaza -- its official name -- is operated by HMS Host. General Manager Fred Fox is proud of the center's function, not just its form.

"This facility is a game-changer for us and for the industry," Fox says. "We provide access to restrooms 24 hours a day -- clean restrooms, I might add. We provide the ability for people to find a place to sit and just relax. We have pet exercise areas where you can stop, take your dog and do what it needs to do. I guess cats probably [too], but I don't see too many cats traveling."

Pretty Expensive For A Free State

The Delaware Travel Plaza is somewhat unique among roadside rest stops.  A federal law passed in the 1960s prohibits private businesses from running state-owned rest areas, specifically to protect small businesses along interstates. But the Delaware Travel Plaza, as well as two other rest stops in Maryland, were grandfathered in.

It's making money for the state, too. Delaware gets a percentage of the sales of food and gasoline -- though not through any taxes. Delaware's a "free state," which means there's no sales tax.

Prices are higher at the Delaware Travel Plaza, however. Management says items there sell for about 10 percent more than they do at similar places off the interstate -- a boon for the state.

That's a tax just the same, Lisa Mullings argues. She represents the local truck stops, gas stations, stores and restaurants you have to exit the highway to patronize. She and the businesses she represents are worried that the success of the Delaware Travel Plaza might embolden other states to lobby to repeal the law that protects local merchants at interstate exits.

"There are 50 percent fewer businesses at the interstate exits if there is a county that has a commercialized rest area," she says.

But travelers like Rohan Cumberbatch-Smith, driving home to Norfolk, Va., with his wife Baseema, say they are willing to pay for the convenience.

"It's a little bit pricey," he says. "But I guess if you're on the road ... I have no choice."

Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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