By most estimates, at least 1.5 million people visit the Great Salt Lake every year. And many millions more zip right past the sparkling waters as they speed along I-80.

The state Division of Parks & Recreation is hoping a new visitors center on the shores of the lake will detour some of those out-of-state visitors and keep them in the area awhile longer.All of which, officials hope, will translate into more tourist dollars for the state.

"We've got literally a world class attraction here," said John Malmborg, superintendent of the Great Salt Lake Beach State Park. "There is a genuine need and interest for a visitors center to meet their (tourists) needs."

Those needs include information on the lake, other tourist sites in the area and places to lodge, dine and recreate.

The visitors center, officially opened to the public Wednesday, is a cooperative venture by state Parks and Recreation, Tooele County, Salt Lake County, the Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Save The Beach Task Force.

Though a visitor's center has been talked about for years, it was the Save The Beach Task Force that incorporated the idea of a visitors center with their efforts to restore the sand beach that was destroyed in the floods of 1983. And it probably wouldn't have happened without the task force's persistence.

"They recognized the need for a visitor's center as part of the overall success of the beach," Malmborg said. "And they followed through."

The visitors center will highlight tourism throughout the state, as well as provide interpretive information on the history and wildlife of the Great Salt Lake. It will also be a primary outlet for tourism information for Salt Lake and Tooele Counties.

The dividends the center is expected to pay should be substantial, particularly when compared to the cost of maintaining and operating it. "It was put together very economically and it will be operated very economically," Malmborg said.

Parks and Recreation "got a great deal" on a used trailer house, said Malmborg, and parks employees have been converting it into a visitors center at the state park.

Many of the materials and costs have been donated by interested businesses and organizations, and the center will be manned by volunteers from the Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Even though the visitors center has been open for about a month, state and local dignitaries were on hand Wednesday to cut the ribbon officially opening the center.

Officials openly admit the center is a temporary structure. "We have to document the fact that a visitors center is needed and worthwhile," Malmborg said, "and then maybe we can convince (the Legislature and county commissions) a permanent visitors center would be worth the money."

Visitation at the beach has been phenomenal, even though the beach is still under construction and facilities are minimal. The lake level continues to fall, which will further enhance visitation.

In addition to Utah travel brochures, the visitors center will exhibit and sell a 30-minute videotape titled "The Great Salt Lake: America's Dead Sea." The video was put together by several professionals who have always shared a love of the Great Salt Lake and wanted to see it promoted better.

"We made a proposal to state Parks and Recreation to make the video at no cost to the state," said Randy Whitehead, a communications strategist with Comm-cepts. "We agreed that if they would sell the video at the park, we would give them 25 percent of the proceeds to develop and improve the park."

The video, the first commercial video ever made of the Great Salt Lake, discusses the history of Lake Bonneville, Kit Carson's explorations, the journeys of the Donner-Reed Party, the Salt Flats and the capricious nature of the lake and man's feeble attempts to control it. It also shows the rare and stunning wildlife that dwells around the lake.