Southern Illinois working to bring back tourists

Southern Illinois working to bring back tourists


EDWARDSVILLE — Unique ideas, cooperative efforts and more workers will be needed to revive the Madison County’s tourism industry following the pandemic, according to area businesses and officials.

On Thursday, state Sen. Rachelle Crowe, D-Glen Carbon, hosted a Senate Tourism & Hospitality Committee hearing at Buckminster Fuller Dome on Southern Illinois University’s campus in Edwardsville. What she heard were business tales of surviving COVID-19 and concerns for the area’s future.

“While nearly every industry has faced unique challenges over the last year and a half, our state’s tourism and hospitality businesses have suffered extensively,” Crowe said.

“… it’s critical that lawmakers speak with local business owners to learn how we can help them recover from pandemic-related losses,” she said.

Kristin DiCenso, Chief of Staff for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, said that their staff has had to “re-train” on how they perform their duties, specifically with hunting.

“Our staff has been re-inventing the wheel,” DiCenso said. “We had to figure out how to do this safely while still getting people out to do their activities.”

IDNR currently has 1,170 staff members managing 400 sites throughout the state, such as Pere Marquette State Park at Grafton.

“We have to ensure the best service to the public,” she said. “And right now we are not doing that, because we don’t have enough staff.”

Steve Gorazd, the co-owner of Bella Vista Winery in Maryville, said area wineries have suffered greatly due to the pandemic.

“Restaurants and bars get most of the news coverage,” he said. “Wineries have been just as affected, if not more, because of ongoing expenses.”

Gorazd said wineries have the same expenses as restaurants and bars — as well as other expenses exclusive to wineries. Those include vendor expenses, labor costs to maintain the vineyard and harvesting grapes, grape purchasing expenses and wine production costs.

“Tourism is critical to attracting customers to our destination,” Gorazd said. “Any help towards the wine industry in Illinois is greatly appreciated.”

Cory Jobe, President/CEO of the Great River and Routes Tourism Bureau, said that in 2018 and 2019 the bureau generated around $80 million in state and local tax revenue.

Last year that figure dropped 50%.

“It’s important that state leaders see the value of the Great Rivers & Routes Tourism region on the state’s economy and witnessed first-hand the impact tourism has on southwest Illinois,” Jobe said.

Crowe also heard from Alton Works, a regional development group launched in early 2018 as a philanthropic effort of John and Jayne Simmons. The private sector, social-impact redevelopment company’s primary goal is to revitalize the region through strategic transformational placemaking.

“Alton Works is committed to collaboration that betters the lives of everyone, not only in Alton but in the entire region,” said Pat McGinnis, Senior Advisor to Alton Works.

“I told the committee that when COVID hit, like everyone else, we initially stepped back and were faced with a good deal of uncertainty,” McGinnis said. “But we remained steadfast in our commitment to positive social change and began to look at regional and local revitalization as a sum of actions that all provide a link to creating liveability.”

Collinsville City Manager Mitch Bair said the pandemic left “a lot of problems” for his city.

“We worry, ultimately, about local businesses,” Bair said.

Brenda Whitaker, a Granite City business owner, said a focus needs to be placed on the arts for tourism potential.

In 2012, Whitaker started Alfresco Productions and the site of the old First Baptist Church as a hub for the Alfresco Arts Center. As of now Whitaker owns four small businesses in the downtown area. Since 2020, these businesses have struggled due to state restrictions. One of them, the Garden Gate Tea Room, is only open three days a week.

In 2012, Whitaker started Alfresco Productions with the former First Baptist Church as a hub for the Alfresco Arts Center. She now owns four small businesses in downtown Granite City, but said that since March 2020 the businesses have struggled because of state restrictions.

“My business model may not survive this pandemic,” Whitaker said. “We can’t replicate what they do in downtown St. Louis or what they do in Edwardsville.”

Ronda Sauget, Executive Director and CEO of the Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois, said her group has noticed that, as people adjusted working from home, the additional stress has required educating parents at the same time.

“With this added responsibility, people seemed reluctant to go back to work,” Sauget said.

Prior to the hearing, Karla Flannery, head of the state tourism agency, toured southwest Illinois Wednesday and Thursday.

In her first trip to the area, Flannery visited attractions and businesses in Alton, Grafton, Collinsville and Edwardsville. She rode the SkyTour to Aerie’s Resort, toured Pere Marquette State Park, met with Grafton Mayor Mike Morrow at Grafton Harbor, visited Tara Point and The Loading Dock in Grafton, toured Elsah, visited Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site and Gateway Convention Center in Collinsville, and stopped at the Lewis & Clark Confluence Tower and the National Great Rivers Museum.

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