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Lifelong Shallotte resident Terri Durham celebrates 25 years in the perfect job at Southeastern Welcome Center.

PHOTOGRAPHY BY Christian Viera

At the front door of the southeast entry to the state, Terri Durham and her staff are the friendly faces that greet travelers from around the world.

They are the information staff of North Carolina’s Southeastern Welcome Center, a little post-and-beam treasure with 40-foot white pine ceilings along U.S. Highway 17 North in Shallotte, where Durham has been the director for 25 years. Armed with smiles, experience and vast amounts of local information, they greet more than 500,000 visitors a year.

Opened in 1992, the $1.2 million dollar facility was built by the N.C. Department of Transportation. Durham’s employer, Southeastern Welcome Centers, Inc. has managed the welcome center’s information services ever since. Another contractor manages the restrooms, concessions area and landscape management.

Terri Durham Southeastern Welcome CenterThe 1,200-square-foot building is stocked with magazines and maps, brochures, guidebooks and coupons. If someone wants to know something about North Carolina tourist spots, this is the place to start.

Durham celebrated her 25th anniversary at Southeastern Welcome Center this year. Born in Chapel Hill while her father was in dental school, Durham considers herself a native of Shallotte. “This is home,” she says.

Her father, Dr. John Madison, moved his family to Shallotte in 1965; he is still in practice after 50-plus years. Durham’s mother, Evelyn, is in real estate. Her younger brother, Tim Madison, owns Duffer’s Bar & Grill on Main Street in Shallotte, and her older brother, John “Tal” Madison, is a Methodist minister in Wilmington.

“Shallotte is a great place to raise a family,” Durham says. “Our whole family has stayed nearby.”

Married to Carson Durham IV, she is a mother of two and was thrilled to be able to raise her family here. “We even bought a house on the road where I grew up,” she says. “When the agent told us we’d have to change the locks because everyone in the neighborhood had a key, we laughed. Why would we do that? These are folks I have known all my life.”

Her daughter, Madison, and her husband, Jim Stewart, live in Shallotte and are expecting Durham’s first grandchild this year. Durham’s son, Carson Durham V, is a junior at West Brunswick High School.

“We were lucky enough to raise our children near their grandparents. To see those relationships is amazing,” Durham says, adding that she hopes to enjoy the same experience with her own grandchildren.

Durham attended Methodist College in Fayetteville then Durham Technical Institute for training as an optician, but opted for a career in real estate instead. “In the early 1990s rentals were doing well, but we were not selling much so I looked for a part-time job,” she says.

Her family watched the new welcome center building being built and wondered what it was going to be. When they found out, she interviewed for a job there and was hired as a full-time information counselor. “Working with the people was the real hook for me,” she says. “That’s when it really kicked in that this was the perfect job.”

Terri Durham Southeastern Welcome CenterThree years later she was promoted to director. Today the welcome center employs four women: Durham, Judy Peterson and two part-time employees – Marie King and Vanessa Hewett.  Peterson has been with the center for more than 20 years. “Working with Terri is wonderful,” she shares. “We have so much fun!”

“There is little that can prepare you for this job,” Durham says, adding that she and her staff are not only information counselors but also detectives, advisors, researchers and more. “There is no certificate program or degree that could have prepared us for what we do every day. It is all on-the job training.”

They plan routes for drivers and make reservations for golf tee times, hotels and ferries. They recommend restaurants, hotels, bed and breakfasts and tourist attractions. They have traveled all over the area themselves, so they have seen and experienced most of what they recommend.

Their most popular request is for reservations on the Cedar Island to Ocracoke Island ferry, which requires advanced reservations, especially in the summer. In fact, Southeastern Welcome Center makes more ferry reservations than any other center.

Durham and her staff have called local hospitals to locate loved ones for travelers, found assistance for stranded drivers and even made a call to the sheriff when a visitor noticed goats loose along the highway.

“Judy played matchmaker once, when she located a local woman for a traveler who had gone to school with her,” Durham says. “The couple is now married.”

Then there was that time that an older couple who had been on the road camping for six months needed help because their dog had just died. The staff was able to get them in touch with a local vet right away.

“It is both a burden and an honor,” Durham admits. “You have to know how to respond to each person at the moment – we will do anything that is legal.”

Because the windows of the welcome center are tinted, visitors cannot see people inside the building, but the women at the information desk can see them. This has led to some interesting sights.

“We see human nature at its finest,” Durham says with a laugh. They have witnessed people changing clothes in the parking lot, watched grown adults “smooching like teenagers” in the front seat, and observed people walking cats — and one time even a rabbit — on leashes.

One winter Durham arrived at work to find a man had pitched a tent against the back of the building. She strongly advises against that for safety reasons.

“To me the most interesting ones are the people who are travelling to find themselves, whether they are biking or walking,” she says. “We could sit for hours and just listen to them.”

The staff has a strong relationship with the staff at the South Carolina Welcome Center in Little River, calling each other often to ask for assistance for their visitors.

In the blink of an eye and without the use of a computer, Durham and her staff can pull together a two- or three-day trip of coastal adventures for any type of visitor. They also welcome locals who have run out of ideas to entertain the grandchildren. “Stop in and let us share some ideas,” Durham says.

In a time when nearly everyone has their eyes glued to a hand-held device, these women are a breath of fresh air. “We are people persons,” she says. “People serving people.”

Reflecting on her quarter of a century at the information desk, Durham has no regrets: “If my career ends tomorrow, I am happy with what I achieved.”

Want to go?

Southeastern Welcome Center is at 394 Whiteville Road/U.S. Highway 17 Bypass in Shallotte. It is open Monday through Saturday from 9 am to 5 pm. It’s closed on Sundays as well as Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Restrooms are open 24-hours. Concessions hours vary by season. You can reach them by phone at (910) 754-2505.

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