Starved Rock in Illinois serves as model for Peoria area
OTTAWA — The Illinois River in LaSalle County isn’t a source of restaurant-quality crawfish or shrimp. But the river provides Cajun Connection a reliable stream of customers.
That stream has been so strong it prompted Ron and Amy McFarlain to open a new, improved Cajun Connection two years ago at the north edge of North Utica. The village of about 1,300 is located just north of Starved Rock State Park, which hugs the south bank of the river.
More than 100 diners can fit in the new building, where they can feast on jambalaya, gumbo and other bayou-tinged specialties. The facility dwarfs the nearby location the McFarlains established in 1995 in a space the size of a bungalow.
“During the summer — Friday, Saturday and Sunday — we are busy. Just like in a big town,” said “Cajun Ron” McFarlain, who retains the etoufee-thick drawl of his native Louisiana.
Tourists visiting Starved Rock and nearby Matthiessen State Park, as well as the lodges built to accommodate them, are the reason for the big-town activity, in McFarlain’s view.
Growing Peoria’s tourism market:Why these 5 communities in Illinois believe they can become outdoor-recreation destination
Out-of-towners also help fill restaurants, bars and a winery tasting room that line Mill Street, the main drag in downtown North Utica. (In common use, the “North” in the village’s official name usually is dropped.)
“We rely on Starved Rock and Grand Bear (Resort) and Utica to hold us through the summer, so we can make it through the winter, when the kids go back to school,” McFarlain said. “It’s very important.”
Officials in the county seat of Ottawa, located about 10 miles upstream from Starved Rock, recognize that.
More than a decade ago, they decided to emphasize ecotourism — “botanical” tourism, as Curt Bedei, executive director of the Ottawa Visitors Center, called it. It was an attempt to resuscitate a stagnant downtown area and diversify from a withering industrial base that had fueled the city of about 18,000.
A nascent coalition of Peoria-area municipalities, led by Peoria Heights, is attempting an outdoor tourism initiative along its stretch of the Illinois River. If Ottawa’s experience is any indication, Bedei believes it’s worthwhile.
Peoria’s newest outdoor tourism draw:Glamping in tents: A sneak peek inside the Sankoty Lakes Resort in Spring Bay
“Tourism is the front door to economic development,” Bedei said. “By creating an atmosphere where people want to come to enjoy a getaway, they’re then investing into the community by shopping, by buying gas, by staying at the hotels. That helps create revenue for the community.
“But the community also has to understand that they have to create that place where people will want to come.”
Outdoor tourism helps downtown Ottawa bustle
Bedei’s office is located along LaSalle Street, just north of the heart of downtown Ottawa. On a recent weekday, that heart appeared to be beating strongly.
Vacant storefronts were few. Traffic was brisk.
Locally owned retailers, restaurants, coffee shops and a craft brewery lined the blocks between the LaSalle County Courthouse and Washington Park, where in 1858 Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas conducted the first of their legendary U.S. Senate debates.
Much of the modern vibrancy is rooted in a study the city commissioned in the late 2000s-early 2010s in an effort to revitalize downtown. The study suggested Ottawa needed a brand, and a botanical one might be best.
“I think we just more or less realized what we already had and just cleaned the dust off of it and started to focus on how we can highlight it,” Bedei said about the area’s outdoors-oriented attractions.
Starved Rock and its canyons, trails and vistas were obvious draws. The park attracts more than 2 million visitors a year, on average, according to Bedei and Bob Navarro, president and CEO of the Joliet-based Heritage Corridor Convention & Visitors Bureau.
But the Ottawa region features other outdoors-centric locales. Among them are the nearby I&M Canal National Heritage Area and Skydive Chicago, which attracts parachutists from around the country and the world, according to Bedei.
“I like to think of Starved Rock as a roundtable,” he said. “A roundtable was created for better traffic flow. By having Starved Rock as a roundtable, the flow of traffic can enjoy Starved Rock, but then they start to flow around the surrounding areas.”
Promotion of sites in those areas dovetailed with new landscaping and expansion of downtown Ottawa sidewalks. The city offered financial incentives for businesses to improve building facades.
Special events area groups conducted also were tied to ecotourism, according to Navarro. Illinois wines were the focus of one festival. A farm-to-table restaurant week skewed local.
“It all fell into place, but it was very much planned out and made sure that you were following the plan and the strategic initiative of the botanical brand,” said Navarro, whose six-county purview includes Bureau and Putnam counties.
“We’re encouraging businesses to look at what the area has to offer and complement what’s being done at (Starved Rock),” he said. “The park’s running certain activities, certain programs related to nature and hiking. They run programs year-round. But we want to make sure there’s other things to do in the area.”
Overnight stays are key to more tax revenue
Ideally, those things lend themselves to more than day trips, Bedei and Navarro suggested. Even if most of the region’s tourism-attraction efforts target the Chicago area, which at most is a two-hour drive.
Heritage Corridor also focuses on the Quad Cities and Rockford areas, according to Navarro. The Ottawa Visitors Center focuses on a four-hour radius, Bedei said.
“Our goal is to really fill those hotel rooms and the lodges and the campgrounds,” Navarro said. “We want people to come and spend the night.
“There’s study after study after study that says that if people are spending the night, they’re spending more money in your community. That’s more economic development.”
Our staff’s ideas:17 ideas to make Peoria a better place to live, play and visit
A tangible example of such development is Heritage Harbor, a housing community developed along the river east of Ottawa. Navarro cited it and a new North Utica-area facility that specializes in “glamping,” or luxury camping.
“If you’re creating that place where people want to visit, then you’re creating a place where people want to live and move to,” Navarro said.
Heritage Corridor has not directed much marketing toward the Peoria area in recent years, Navarro said. He didn’t rule out collaboration — or “co-opetition,” as Bedei put it — with Peoria-area tourism groups.
That could includes the Riverview Coalition, which bands Chillicothe, Henry, Lacon, Peoria Heights and Spring Bay in ecotourism pursuits. If Ottawa is a template, it might be at least two or three years before Peoria-area efforts begin to bear fruit, according to Bedei.
But if the messaging is unified, area strengths are emphasized and the community takes ownership, the emphasis on the outdoors can become a great thing.
“It takes some time to build it up and change the reputation. Or build a reputation,” Navarro said. “So give it some time. Give it care.”