GREER, S.C. — Mitch Lewites credits his 1987 BMW convertible for saving his life when he fell asleep at the wheel and careened down an embankment near his home in New Jersey.
Two decades and two BMW cars later, Mr. Lewites remains a fan of the German-designed car, and earlier this month he traveled here to get a glimpse of how the vehicle is assembled.
“The fact that I walked away from what could have been a fatal accident with only a sprained ankle has kept me buying BMWs. I wanted to see the factory where they are built,” Mr. Lewites said while waiting for his factory tour inside BMW’s museum and vehicle gallery.
He is one of more than 70,000 visitors expected this year to tour the BMW factory in Greer, stroll through the visitor center or take a test drive on the BMW performance track.
BMW has turned its production site along Interstate 85 into a tourist attraction since production began on BMW’s luxury cars and trucks here in 1994. The giant U-shaped visitor center — dubbed Zentrum (the German word for “center”) — displays dozens of BMW cars, trucks and motorcycles and chronicles the history of the 92-year-old German carmaker.
“We knew people wanted to know about the novelty of building BMWs in the USA, so we put this here so they could learn about our company and its products and have a place to gather for our plant tours, which stay booked months in advance,” said Kenn Sparks, manager of corporate communications for BMW in South Carolina. “We also wanted our associates who work in this plant to know that they are building BMWs for the world and are part of a lineage that goes back nearly 100 years.”
Volkswagen also plans to open a visitor center along Interstate 75 near the plant it will build at the Enterprise South industrial park in Chattanooga. VW has yet to work out the type of facility it will develop for visitors, Volkswagen spokeswoman Jill Bratina said. But as part of Tennessee’s incentive package to recruit the company, the city of Chattanooga and Hamilton County jointly have committed to providing $6 million to help fund such a center.
“When you realize where our facility will be built on I-75 and recognize the number of people who will pass by this plant every day, we’d like to use that visibility to communicate about Volkswagen and Chattanooga,” Ms. Bratina said.
Ed McCallum, an industrial site consultant in Greenville, S.C., said visitor centers allow consumers to see and touch a company’s product.
“It helps promote both the company and its products,” he said.
Michael Robinet, vice president of global forecast services for CSM Worldwide, an auto industry consulting company based in Northville, Mich., said visitor centers and plant tours first became popular with luxury brands in Europe and since have grown popular in many of the new Southern auto plants built in the past couple of decades.
“They help drum up more of a positive ownership experience and build up the passion behind the brands,” Mr. Robinet said. “For Volkswagen, it shows that they are not only committed to the local landscape but to building vehicles in the United States. Chattanooga is a place you’ve got to drive through, at least if you are on I-75, so by having a visitors’ center along that highway, it certainly should bring more attention and good will for the company.”
In the Zentrum, the company’s history is traced through the years with vintage vehicles on display, along with a snack and souvenir shop with books and BMW collector’s items for sale.
“BMW has really brought an entire industry to this region, and with it we brought a proud history and heritage,” Mr. Sparks said.
Nearly 35,000 people a year arrange for a factory tour at BMW, and a comparable number just stroll through the Zentrum to see its free exhibits. In 2007, the BMW performance driving school at the plant also hosted more than 10,000 visitors, records show.
“That helps expose our state and its quality of life to a lot of discerning consumers and tourists,” said Doug Woodward, a professor of economics at the University of South Carolina who recently analyzed the impact of BMW in the state.