Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Voters OK Rend Lake Development

Voters in Franklin and Jefferson Counties gave the Rend Lake Conservancy District a green light today to pursue private sector development on leased conservancy district lands along Rend Lake.

The district approved a request for proposals earlier this year for development along the lake front. Although this was something a part of the original plans for the lake the district's board wanted to make sure the public still support it since it had been nearly 40 years since those original plans were made.

Residents supported the proposals nearly 2 to 1 according to results in the Mount Vernon Register-News.
In Jefferson County, voters answered the advisory question with 7,309 saying yes to development and 3,639 voting against. In Franklin County, 9,813 voters said yes, and 5,559 no, for a total of 17,122 voting in favor and 9,198 against.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Support Still Needed for State Park Funding

I received the following e-mail alert yesterday from our friends at ICCVB. It deals with the funding legislation passed recently for state parks and historic sites (as well as other programs).

After their passage, the Senate forwarded two bills (one to sweep dedicated funds and the other to provide funding to keep open state historic sites and state parks) to the Governor on October 7, 2008. Governor Blagojevich has 60 calendar days to take action on this legislation, would be December 6th, six days after the stated closures of the state parks and historic sites (Novemeber 30).

We have been informed that the Governor has stated he will not sign SB 1103 until he is sure the state can withstand the current economic downturn. The Pantagraph ( Bloomington - Normal area) published a story confirming this information, which you can read by clicking on the following link: http://m1e.net/c?89081502-RDzZxpnTZJBQ2%403700274-A7LOipkAJbA36.

We will continue to fight for restoration of these vital funds and will keep you informed of any updates.

Please take time to call or e-mail the Governor’s office asking him to take quick action to sign this legislation You can send an email to Governor Blagojevich at governor@illinois.gov, or call (312) 814-2121. You can also show your support on this issue by signing an electronic petition at www.saveourstateparks.org.

According to an Associated Press article earlier this week a spokesman for the governor said the reluctance to sign the measure was due to weakening economic conditions which might force additional cuts.

“We are reviewing our revenue forecast to ensure that we will not have to make further cuts,” Guerrero said. “It would be a shame to propose restorations and then have to rescind them if the economic climate worsens.”

Rich Miller of Capitol Fax noted that quote on his blog Monday.

I can’t believe the AP let that one go unchallenged.

So what if the governor restores the cuts and revenue tanks? What does one have to do with the other?

The General Assembly made some very specific cut restorations by using targeted skims from existing money in special state funds.

Even if the overall budget completely tanks, there will be zero impact on the legislative package approved by the General Assembly, because it didn’t rely on any General Revenue Fund money. If GRF goes down, those special funds aren’t reduced.

The problem goes beyond this one bill and the parks and historic sites currently threatened. Both systems are broke. We need a better system.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Morgan Street Overpass Opens

I haven't seen an official announcement, but the new Morgan Street Overpass crossing Interstate 57 near The Hill in Marion is open to traffic.

I've already traveled over it twice today.

Down below construction crews were laying asphalt for the off ramps from the southbound lane of I-57 to Route 13. The ramps should be open later this fall.

Meanwhile Marion's newest McDonalds opened yesterday at the old Court Street location. The owners tore down the 35-year-old original building and replaced it with a new larger structure.

On the west side crews continue to install a new exterior to Burger King and just up Halfway Road halfway to The Hill, Country Inn & Suites continues its progress.

According to the Marion Daily Republican that hotel should be open by November 15, which is the same target date for the new Pirate Pete's restaurant and family fun center locating in the Illinois Centre Mall.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Southern Illinois State Historic Sites Slashed

Southern Illinois may have been spared cuts to its state parks, but no state historic sites south of Interstate 70 will be left opened after Oct. 1.

The Rockford Register-Star provides the full list:

  • Cahokia Courthouse, Cahokia: The site will close Oct. 1 but will open on a limited basis for special events. It is currently open five days per week, and had 8,414 visitors in 2007.

  • Fort de Chartres, Prairie du Rocher: The site will close Oct. 1 but will open on a limited basis for special events. It is currently open five days per week, and had 38,100 visitors in 2007.

  • Fort Kaskaskia and Pierre Menard Home, Ellis Grove: These two sites, including the campground at Fort Kaskaskia, will close Oct. 1. These sites are currently open five days per week, and had 23,086 visitors in 2007.

  • Vandalia Statehouse, Vandalia: The site will close Oct. 1 but will open on a limited basis for special events. It is currently open five days per week, and had 31,690 visitors in 2007.

Of course, it would be remiss if I didn't point out that there were already seven IHPA-owned historic sites in the region without any staff.

  • Old Slave House - Purchased in 2000, never been reopened.

  • Shawneetown Bank - State Bank of Illinois built in 1840, purchased by the state in 1946 and never been fully opened to the public.

  • Old Rose Hotel - Oldest hotel in the state. First section built in 1812 following the New Madrid Earthquakes. Now operated as a concessionaire-leased bed and breakfast.

  • Buel House - Golconda. Maintained and opened occasionally by the Pope County Historical Society.

  • Kincaid Mounds - Brookport. Only recently have we had a viewing platform, site interpretation and a parking lot.

  • Halfway Tavern - Marion County.

  • Lincoln Trail State Memorial - Lawrenceville. Monument honors Lincoln and his family when the moved into Illinois. Luckily the National Park Service which operates the George Rogers Clark Memorial across the Wabash River at Vincennes, Indiana, comes over and mows the grass. It's currently getting a $19,700 facelift.

The only sites left are Cahokia Mounds in the MetroEast which will stay open 5 days a week.

Randolph County has an unemployment rate right now of 8.4 percent last month. It doesn't need to lose another 61,000 visitors-plus that go to these historic sites, two of which pre-date the American Revolution.

Likewise Fayette County too suffers an 8.4 percent unemployment rate and could have greatly benefited from 31,000-plus visitors coming to the state's third capitol building over the next 12 months while the nation celebrates the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth. Ironically, while most Lincoln sites were spared, this is one that wasn't and Lincoln served as a state representative in Vandalia.

These cuts aren't surprise. We've been warned they were coming all summer.

While this is obviously political, politics aside, the decline in funding and staffing has been an issue for the last three governors.

My only question is when is the state going to start looking at alternatives. Placing chains across a gate isn't a legitimate answer. It's just another problem that needs to be overcome.

Rumored List of State Park Closings Leaked

View Larger Map

Southern Illinois appears to have been spared in the latest round of cutbacks just confirmed for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Jeff Lampe, outdoor writer for the Peoria Journal-Star and Prairie State Outdoors, just posted a list of 11 state parks set to close come November 1 due to cuts.

The list, confirmed with the agency, does not include any in Southern Illinois.

Lampe quotes the agency spokesman as saying 39 workers will be laid off. Those include:
25 site technician II, 4 rangers, 3, site assistant superintendents, 1 office associate (part-time), 3 office coordinators (2 part-time, 1 full-time), 1 site security officer (IFPE union), 1 natural resource coordinator and 1 natural resource specialist.

Previous stories, including one in the Chicago Tribune on August 3, put the targeted number at nine in a story about a $9 million announced cut in the budget of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
The move will strain an already stressed system and could lead to the closing of as many as nine parks with low attendance figures, according to a source familiar with the issue.

The source said staff reductions could be fewer than 100 at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, which oversees 122 parks and natural areas and has lost 734 staff positions since 2002. Park advocates say the cuts will result in the loss of 163 jobs.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Two New Restaurants Target Marion

Marion is losing one but gaining two new restaurants.

The Southern Illinoisan broke the story Sunday in the business section that long-time steakhouse Ruby Tuesday will be closing when their lease runs out this fall in the Illinois Centre Mall.

Over the last decade or so the chain has focused more on stand-alone eateries, though there is no word yet as to whether they plan to build a new restaurant in Marion.

Their space in the mall won't stay empty for long. Gourmet Chef Jim Halpin, formerly with Kokopelli and the Rend Lake Resort, has been planning his own steakhouse for the site, Halpin's Great American Chop Shop.

Mall Manager Bob Hardy told The Southern a bit about Halpin I did not know.

"He used to cook for Jerry Garcia (the late performer with The Grateful Dead rock group) and has had articles written about his work in Bon App├ętit magazine."

Jim contacted me at my job with the Southern Illinois Tourism Development Office a couple of months ago for some economic data about the region.

One of the surprising statistics that I found was that Williamson County residents eat out more than in surrounding counties. Maybe it's the large number of restaurants, or it may simple be due to the fact that a higher percent of county residents work and can either better afford to eat out, or don't have the time to cook at home.

The other new restaurant is another I've known about for some time, in part because it's locating about 50 feet behind my desk in the former Phar-Mor anchor store of the Illinois Centre Mall.

Pirate Pete's Family Entertainment Center promises to be a twist between a Chuck E. Cheese and a Dave and Buster's. It includes not only food, but fun, lots of it, in terms of video games and laser tag.

Like Halpin's eatery, this one will be locally owned as well. Sesser native Eugene "Ditto" Basso plans to open by mid-November.

"It's somewhat similar to Chuck E. Cheese's and Dave & Buster's, but not exactly. Our restaurant will be separate from the game room divided by a large saltwater aquarium. Chuck E. Cheese appeals mainly to children 12 and under, while Dave & Buster's is designed more for adults. We're going to try to reach a happy medium with Pirate Pete's. I've already hired a chef consultant out of Philadelphia. I will have meals that a family watching its budget can afford," Basso told the Southern.

Congratulations go out to both men.

Blog Goes Regional

Welcome to the Southern Illinois Tourism Blog, formerly the Williamson County Tourism Blog.

I started the former two years ago before joining the team at Williamson County Tourism. Now that I've moved up from one county to 22, it's time for the name to change as well.

The Board of Directors at the Southern Illinois Tourism Development Office (SITDO) hired me as the new executive director of the office in May and I started Memorial Day. SITDO's main website was AdventureIllinois.com, but when I started to work on a new website design I discovered the IllinoisAdventure.com was now available, so I registered it.

There's a blog on it, but my plans are to keep that one targeted towards tourists with events and news. This one will focus more on the tourism industry, with some items posted on both.

Eventually we'll have a separate website for SITDO with more information geared towards the tourism industry here in Southern Illinois which is growing tremendously in some areas.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Region's Beaches Ready for Summer

It's a long way to the beaches in Florida, but Southern Illinois has some great ones right in our back yards.

Some of them like Sandusky Beach at Rend Lake and the public beach at Pounds Hollow Lake in the Shawnee National Forest. Others will open Memorial Day weekend.

Cedar Lake - Poplar Camp Beach (Jackson County) south of Carbondale opens Friday, May 23, from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekends.

State certified lifeguards are on duty during beach open hours. Admission is $2 per person with children under four admitted free. The beach and lake are operated by the City of Carbondale. Passes are available for 10 visits for $15 and 20 visits for $25. Passes are good for the entire esason and can be used by anyone at anytime.

For information on beach closings, call 618-549-8441 or 618-549-5302. Alcoholic beverages, glass containers and fires are prohibited at the beach.

Crab Orchard Lake (Williamson County) - The beach at Crab Orchard Campground will open for the season on May 26. Hours are from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. seven days a week. There is a lifeguard present. Admission is $2 per person per day. No alcoholic beverages or glass bottles permitted. For more information contact the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge at 618-997-3344.

Lake Glendale (Pope County) - The beach at Lake Glendale opens May 24 with hours from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from noon to 6 p.m. on Sunday.

Lifeguards are present. Admission is $3.50 for persons 6 and over and $2.50 or persons 5 and under. The admission is for the entire day and swimmers may come and go. No alcohol or glass bottles permitted. The lake and beach is part of the Shawnee National Forest.

The concessionaire at Lake Glendale also offers paddle boat and canoe rentals.

Pounds Hollow Lake (Gallatin County) - This is a free day-use area in the Shawnee National Forest. The beach is open during daylight hours. No lifeguards are provided.

Rend Lake - Sandusky Beach is currently the only beach open at Rend Lake from 8 a.m. to sunset.

No lifeguards are on duty though. Admission is $1 per person up to $4 per vehicle (per day). Children 12 and under are admitted free. No alcohol or glass bottles permitted. Operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Sam Dale Lake (Wayne County) is part of the Sam Dale Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area that's open Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day.

The swimming area is a buoy-marked area with a large beach area for sun-bathers. No life guards present. Swimmers under 17 must be accompanied by an adult. No alcohol allowed.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Celebrate National Tourism Week at the Pavilion

We're celebrating National Tourism Week this week May 10 through May 18, with an open house, business after-hours event this Thursday afternoon, May 15, from 4 to 7 p.m. here at the Williamson County Pavilion located at 1602 Sioux Drive behind the Illinois Centre Mall in Marion.

From our news release:
"What do wedding receptions, concerts and an AKC dog show have in common? Not only are they forms of tourism, but they’re all events held at the Pavilion this year,” explained Jon Musgrave, executive director of the Williamson County Tourism Bureau, which also manages the Pavilion.

“It’s hard to find such a variety of events in one place,” Events Coordinator Cherri Flinn said. “The Pavilion is a rare commodity with its 54,000 square feet of space and an Expo Hall that can hold 4,000 people.”

This Thursday the public is invited to the Pavilion’s first Business After Hours which is open from 4 to 7 p.m. Guests will be treated to free appetizers, drinks and personal tours of the facility.

Organizers say the event will be a great way to spread the word not only about tourism’s impact on the region but also what is offered at the Pavilion.

“This is an opportunity to let the community come in and see what services we offer,” Williamson County Tourism Marketing Director Nic Skovgaard said. “The Pavilion is unique just from the simple fact we can go from MMA cage fights to a cheerleading competition to a cat and dog show – and sometimes the set up happens overnight.”

Since the Pavilion opened in 2004 it has been host to hundreds of events – business meetings, celebrity fundraising events, proms, outdoor shows and even Mixed Martial Arts cage fighting.

“Tourists spend an incredible amount of money in Southern Illinois. Right at $450 million in 2006 in the 17th southernmost counties from I-64 south,” explained Musgrave. “All that money helped finance a payroll of $95 million and 4,050 jobs. That makes quite an impact.”

In Williamson County the biggest projects over the last few years have been Rent One Park and the Williamson County Pavilion.

The ballpark attracted a quarter million visitors to Marion last year and the Pavilion drew more than 54,000 visitors through its doors spread over 347 bookings.

“Both attendance and bookings were up more than 121 percent last year and the first three months of this year saw another 67 percent increase in attendance,” said Musgrave.

Larger crowds at the Southern Illinois Boat and Fishing Show and the Spring Home Show were two reasons he said, as well as a new gun and knife show.

In terms of lodging, Williamson County has seen new cabins or bed and breakfast inns open or expand in Herrin, Johnston City and Marion with another one soon to open in Hurst. This spring developers of a new Country Inn & Suites broke ground on a new 67-unit hotel below the Hill near Exit 54A. Another hotel and two more major restaurants are expected to follow later this year.

Besides the dog show, other upcoming events at the Pavilion include Drifters in concert also in June, a cat show in July, and the Colgate Country Showdown Illinois State Finals in September.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Herrinfesta Offers Opportunities to Help

The Herrin Civic Center is looking for help during Herrinfesta Italiana and Memorial Day weekend:
If you would like to support the Herrin Civic Center and the HBBA, please contact Ed Schullian at 727-0245 or the Herrin Civic Center at 942-6115. Also, anyone who can donate cakes, pies, cookies or some type of dessert to sell, it would be much appreciated. They can be dropped off at the Civic Center Friday, May 23, 2008 after the prayer breakfast. We appreciate your help and support of the Civic Center and Herrin Festa Italiana.

Monday, May 05, 2008

HerrinFesta Italiana Gearing Up for Later This Month

The HerrinFesta Italiana is a five day festival every Memorial Day week-end that celebrates the heritage of Herrin, a Southern Illinois community. The festival provides a sense of community spirit, as well as a homecoming for former residents and a welcome to thousands of travelers from all over the Midwest. This year the HerrinFesta Italiana dates are Thursday, May 22-Monday, May 26.

One of the largest and best known festivals in the state, the HerrinFesta Italiana has always brought top notch entertainment to the Heartland. The festival has featured such top names as The Dixie Chicks, the year they won Female Country Vocal of the Year. Other Country Stars have also appeared including Herrin's own David Lee Murphy, and Phil Vassar.

Entertainment groups have included everything from Jazz, Blues and Folk to Rock, Funk, Country and Zydeco.

This year is no different as sixteen top musical groups from all over the midwest are scheduled to appear. Thursday night features The Hairbangers Ball a Chicago group doing musical memories from the 80's. Friday night and Saturday night will highlight "Monsters of Rock", Danny Seraphine (formerly with Chicago) and California Transit Authority on Friday and John Waite on Saturday.

Also on Saturday's "Parrot Head" afternoon Doyle Grisham a member of the Jimmy Buffet Band will make a special appearance with the Boat Drunks. Jake Owen is featured on Country Sunday. Jake was nominated for Top Male Vocalist of the Year this year. The festival culminates on Monday night with the popular LoCash cowboys.

Top entertainment is not the only activity at the Festa. There is an authentic Italian food and beverage garden. A wine garden. A clean friendly carnival. An arts and crafts show. A parade, beauty pageant, and children's activities. A live video telecast direct from Italy of Mandolinisti Bustesi a famous Italian orchestra performing seven Italian Operatic selections will be included in Sunday's activities.

This year The Incredible Hulk will make an appearance on Saturday. A Saturday car show features many custom vehicles.

There are also bocce, volleyball, and golf tournaments, road races and special Italian contests. The HerrinFesta Italiana has always included something for the entire family.

For additional information visit the website at www.HerrinFesta.com or call the information hotline at 1-800-IT-FESTA.

Carterville Farmers Market to Start in June

The Farmers Market in Carterville will operate on Friday afternoons this summer beginning June 6 at the First Baptist Church parking lot. Hours are 3 to 6 p.m.

Booth costs for vendors are just $5. Persons interested can contact the Carterville Chamber of Commerce office at 985-6942.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Lodging Election Kicks Off

The spring lodging election for representatives on the Board of Directors of the Williamson County Tourism Bureau kicked off today.

WCTB Board Secretary Judy Attebury and I opened the nominations that came into the office last month. The following were nominated and will appear on the ballot:
  • James Baker, manager of America’s Best Inn
  • Anna Bordenave, co-owner of Oakridge Manor Bed and Breakfast
  • Barb Lomax, Barb Lomax, manager of Hampton Inn
  • Ashok Patel, co-owner of America’s Best Inn
  • Robert Toupal, former owner of Toupal’s Country Inn

Ann Hindman and Greg Triplett were also nominated, but since they are already on the board as lodging representatives and their terms are not up they will not be listed on the ballot.

All lodging facilities in Williamson County who are current on their county bed tax will receive ballots. A check was made this afternoon. Ballots will go into the mail tomorrow morning and are due back in the office by May 27, 2008.

The ballots will be opened during the regular board meeting scheduled for noon on May 28, 2008. The new terms begin at the June meeting.

Two seats are up this year among the seven lodging representatives on the 19-member board. Those two seats are currently filled by Anna Bordenave and Barb Lomax.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Libraries and Museums Offer Gems for Genealogists

With Memorial Day coming up next month and ever warming days, genealogists can now get out for those fun family history research trips.

The Williamson County Historical Society operates a great research library in their Jail Museum at 105 S. Van Buren Street in Marion.

They are open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Thursdays, as well as open until 8 p.m. on the third Thursday of each month. Tours of the museum are given on Thursdays with the last tour starting at 2 p.m.

In Herrin the expanded city library has developed a great local history room under the guidance of retired high school librarian Linda Banks. The library honored her last Sunday by naming the room the after her.

The Herrin City Library is located at 120 N. 13th St., one block east of Park Avenue which is Route 148.

The Frankfort Area Genealogy Society also operates another major local research library in the old Logan School in Frankfort Heights on the east side of West Frankfort at 2000 E. St. Louis St.

It's open on Wednesdays and Thursdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Although located in Franklin County this museum and library includes a lot of information about Williamson County, particularly the north portion the county. Historically, Williamson County was a part of Franklin from 1818 to 1839.

The genealogical collection of the Genealogy Society of Southern Illinois is available for researchers at the John A. Logan College library in Carterville.

Other good sites for research include the following:
  • Morris Library, SIU-Carbondale
  • Illinois Regional Archives Depository (IRAD), Carbondale
  • Saline County Genealogy Society's Library, Harrisburg City Hall (open weekday mornings)

Monday, April 14, 2008

Bald Knob Cross Meeting Set for Tuesday

A public meeting is set for 7 p.m. tomorrow (April 15) in Alto Pass where an engineer from E.T. Simonds Co. will release a report on the structural integrity of the interior of Bald Knob Cross.

The report will be made during the regular monthly meeting of the Friends of the Cross group.

Last month the Southern Illinoisan quoted the group's president, Bill Vandergraph, passing along the initial reaction of the engineer.
"He says it's considerably worse that what most people say," Vandergraph said, adding that cost estimates and specifics had not yet been given.

The Alto Pass Civic Center is located at 19 Elm Street in Alto Pass.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Bucky Covington Rocks the Pavilion

Rising country music star Bucky Covington proved his idol status last night at his concert in Marion at the Williamson County Pavilion.

Covington performed along with opening act South 70 out of Atlanta.

Tonight Keith Anderson, Chris Young and the Lost Trailers are performing at the Pavilion in their "Raisin' the Bar" tour.

Another night of concerts is scheduled for Friday, April 25, featuring three rising Nashville acts — Smokey Lonesome, Mammoth Jack and Cole Prather.

Tickets can be purchased at Black Diamond Harley-Davidson here in Marion or online using the "Buy Tickets Now" button below.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Public Meeting Set for Rend Lake Issues

Just received this news release this afternoon:
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Rend Lake has announced plans to host a public workshop to discuss the changes that will be implemented in the operation of the Corps of Engineers managed areas at Rend Lake during the 2008 recreation season.

The meeting will be held at the Rend Lake Visitor Center on Saturday, April 12, 2008 from 1:00 – 3:00 p.m. The informational workshop will provide individuals with lake information for the 2008 recreation season and provide the public with the opportunity to ask question of the Corps about area closings and reduced services that will be in effect at Rend Lake.

For more information feel free to contact the Rend Lake Project Office at 618-724-2493.

These meetings are in response to the budget cutbacks and the effects on the upcoming summer recreation season.

Birding Fest Set for Later This Month

The 7th Annual Birding Fest is scheduled later this month on April 25-27, down in the Cache River Basin with guided tours, mini-workshops and a host of other activities throughout the weekend.

A Birding Blitz is scheduled for Friday and programs will take place throughout the weekend at the Cache River Wetlands Center located on Route 37 in southeastern Johnson County.

Activities include guided canoe tours, birding hikes, live bird demonstrations, wildlife photo exhibits and "much more."

For more information check out their website at www.BirdingBlitz.org.

The event is sponsored by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Southern Illinois Audubon Society, Friends of the Cache River Watershed, The Nature Conservancy, Shawnee Audubon Society and Southernmost Illinois Tourism Bureau.

Country Inn & Suites Breaks Ground

Jim Zeller, owner of Zeller Construction and the new Country Inn & Suites coming to Marion this fall broke ground yesterday at the site of the hotel on Halfway Road about halfway between Route 13 and The Hill.

Yours truly was there along with other city officials and members of the Marion Chamber of Commerce.

The heavy rains this spring haven't helped the construction season. Zeller said he's likely to move the opening date until sometime in November for his new three-story 66-room hotel.

The new lodging facility will be located at 1306 N Halfway Rd north of America's Best Inns and south of 17th Street Bar & Grill.

For more on the plans check out this article from the announcement of the hotel back in February.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Update on New Golf Trail Idea

Representatives from the proposed Abraham Lincoln Golf Trail met with pros from the top courses in Southern Illinois yesterday at Rend Lake. The goal was to brief them about the trail idea as well as to secure their buy-in with the program.

The Southern's Karen Binder has more...
"Northern Illinois goes to Alabama, Florida and South Carolina," Granberg said. "If this works we can expand this to become whatever we want it to become. We want to tie in with wine trail, state lodges, restaurants and everything else. This is about economic development."

...The idea is to make the Web site a virtual office for the trail, allowing golfers to make tee times, lodging reservations, learn about other area attractions, see course layouts, check out golf packages and even eye the weather forecast.

Todd Ely, a Springfield economic development consultant, said targeted marketing and advertising, such as billboards and article placement in golf publications, would drive golf traffic to the site.

From the site, "we want to cross-promote everyone," Ely added.

Check out the entire article on the Southern Illinoisan's website.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Update on Rend Lake Water Levels

The latest from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineeers:
As of 1:00 p.m., Friday, April 4, the current pool elevation at Rend Lake is 411.72 feet NGVD. The lake is expected to crest on Saturday at a level slightly lower than 412.0 feet ngvd.

The Rend Lake dam received approximately 1.49 inches of rain last night which did not substantially raise the level of the lake. All Corps of Engineers campgrounds remain open, however the Honker Point access road has been closed due to high water. Campsites are available in the Shady Rest and Lakeview camping loops within the Wayne Fitzgerrell State Park. The Rend Lake Resort remains open with accommodations available in the resort, conference center and motel.

Although rainfall totals in the area fell short of predicted amounts, motorists are reminded to use caution when driving in low-lying areas which are still prone to flooding. Rural roadways may have been damaged during the recent heavy rains and may be hazardous to vehicle traffic.

For more information on lake levels go to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Rend Lake Web site at www.mvs.usace.army.mil/rend or call the Rend Lake Project Office at 618-724-2493.

Gem & Mineral Show This Weekend

The Southern Illinois Earth Science Club will hold its free gem and mineral show this weekend from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday here in the Williamson County Pavilion.

Vendors will be showing off include exhibits of minerals, fossils, Indian artifacts, gemstones, jewelry and lapidary work.

The Ben E. Clement Museum from our sister city of Marion, Kentucky, will feature minerals from their world-class collection and the Illinois State Geologic Survey will also have maps and guides for sale.

There will be working demonstrations of lapidary skills, arrowhead making, rock painting and related crafts.

A silent auction will also be held, along with numerous chances to win door prizes.

DuQuoin State Fair Goes With Jungle Theme

The Southern Illinoisan is reporting this afternoon that the theme for this year's DuQuoin State Fair will be "It's a Jungle in Here".
The fair will feature a free jungle theme park north of the two permanent homes in the fairgrounds. The theme park will host three structured shows on each day of the fair. Tigers, cougars, monkeys and various types of snakes will also be available for viewing.

The fair will run from Aug. 22 through Sept. 1.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Presidential Golf Trail About to Debut?

We know Bill Clinton likes to golf. Forty years earlier it was Dwight Eisenhower's game that made the news, but I admit I really hadn't thought about the combination of Abraham Lincoln and golf before yesterday when a reporter called me about it.

Turns out this was a case where the reporter knew more than I did. Apparently state Rep. Kurt Granberg, D-Centralia, has this idea of a seven-course Abraham Lincoln Golf Trail to be modeled and advertised much like the Trent Jones Golf Trail in Alabama, which is to golf trails like the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail is to wine trails.

Tessa Culli wrote about it last month in the Mount Vernon Register-News and I missed it.
MT. VERNON — A proposed Southern Illinois golf trail which includes the Rend Lake Golf Course is just the beginning of a bigger plan, according to state Rep. Kurt Granberg.

“It’s hard to market just one course,” Granberg said. “If you want to attract a lot of people, start in the Metro East area, go downstate, hit lodges where you can utilize state lodges and parks. The golf trail is part of a large economic development blueprint for the region. The golf trail is just one part.”

Besides Rend Lake the article notes he is also including Kokopelli Golf Club here in Marion and Stone Creek Golf Club in Makanda definitely in the plan and "would like to add the Gambit Golf Club in Vienna.

In addition to the local golf clubs there are two to four more in the MetroEast and along the I-64 corridor.

There's a meeting next week where Granberg is expected to unveil more details to the golf courses.

What's not known at this time is how this will impact the Southern Illinois Golf Trail.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Tickets On Sale Now for Country Concerts

Tickets are now for sale online at WCPavilion.com for the upcoming Bucky Covington concert on April 9 and the Keith Anderson concert on April 10.

American Idol-finalist Bucky Covington will perform along with special guests South 70 at the Williamson County Pavilion on Wednesday, April 10.

Keith Anderson's "Raisin' the Bar" tour comes to the Pavilion the following day along with Chris Young and The Lost Trailers.

Tickets are general admission and cost $25 per show. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. Concerts start at 7 p.m. There is a facility fee for ordering tickets online. Tickets can also be purchased from Black Diamond Harley-Davidson in Marion.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

'Foodies' Target of SIU Tourism Project

Monday's Southern highlights another tourism project underway in the region, this time targeting the distinct culinary delights of Southern Illinois.

Carbondale Tourism Director Debbie Moore talks about the project with the Southern's Karen Binder. She's mentioned it before in tourism meetings and quite frankly it sounds delicious!

"What better way to understand an area's culture if it means understanding the food," Moore said. "The natural start for destination dining here is a perfect pairing with Southern Illinois wine and our Southern Illinois dishes. We want food and wine to the primary focus to this initiative."

While culinary tourism development opportunities are as varied as menu choices, Moore said developing partnerships with key food communities, such as restaurants, wineries and food producers, could tap the region's German, Polish, Italian, Hispanic and black historical roots.

Also, the team cited potential for a barbecue trail, promotion of locally grown products, turning farmers' markets into travel attractions, production tours, food safety and hospitality training, tourism business planning and more. Work is already under way on a regional cookbook.

Next step for the team is rolling out its Web site around a Southern Illinois Food, Family and Fun logo against a checkered tablecloth and continuing planning to launch the concept.

"Our hope that this entrepreneurial spirit can be leveraged with state money and we can see this happen," Moore said.

Karen ends her story with Debbie's rhetorical question, "How simple does it sound to serve apple pie made of Southern Illinois apples?"

Yet, it's not that simple. It's getting harder and harder to find locally-produced pies, let alone locally-produced pies filled with locally-grown fruit.

It came up at every tourism town meeting we conducted last year this issue of where tourists can go to get a "true taste" of Southern Illinois.

I call it the rhubarb test. I'm not a big pie eater, but I grew up on my grandmother's rhubarb and occasionally gooseberry pies. To me that's Southern Illinois. That's a distinctive taste that I associate with the region.

It's like knowing where the best barbecue can be found, or knowing that if going to Herrin - the best Italian beef.

Not all tourists stay overnight in the region, but it's almost guaranteed that if they spend just two or three hours here they'll eat at least one meal.

Whatever we can do to make that meal more memorable the better down the road for us.

Another part of Debbie's grant would pay off even more immediately as it would connect local food growers to local restaurants.

Southern Covers Agri-Tourism in Region

The Southern Illinoisan's Karen Binder highlights the region's growing agri-tourism industry in Sunday's business section cover story.

While our ever-growing number of wineries in the region prove to be the best-known combo of agricultural and tourism the story also points out the other sides as well.

There is more to agritourism than wineries. Also at home here is The Haunted Barn south of Marion, Rendleman Orchards Farm Market in Alto Pass and Shumaker Christmas Trees in Olive Branch.

Simply, an agritourism business is any land-based farm or business that is open to the public and offers services or products for sale.

I'm quoted in there as well talking about our hunt clubs focusing on geese and duck hunting as well as the thousands of acres of land in Williamson County alone leased to outfitters for all type of hunting activities.

Friday, February 22, 2008

New Articles Outlines Kid Fishing Opportunities

Don Gasaway just sent me the March outdoors news release for the bureau. It's got a great wrap-up of the local fishing opportunities for kids, especially great places where parents can take their children out for some bank-side fishing.

I've posted the column online at the Williamson County Tourism Bureau's website on the "News" page.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Governor Proposes Steady Tourism Funding

Meetings have kept me from digging through the Gov. Rod Blagojevich's budget address earlier today, but we just received word from our friends in the Illinois Council of Convention and Visitors Bureaus (ICCVB) that state tourism funding proposed for FY09 will be the same level as this year.

Last year the governor proposed keeping funding levels the same as they had been for the previous two years, but the legislature added a 10 percent boost to the funding line items for local and regional tourism line items.

Here in Williamson County our state grant covers about 20 percent of our budget with most of the remaining funding coming for the local two percent bed tax.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Governor Considering Entry Fees for State Parks

Lee Enterprise's Kurt Erickson is reporting that Gov. Rod Blagojevich may push entry fees for state parks in Wednesday's budget address.
Although the final touches are still being made to the governor’s latest spending proposal, officials acknowledge they’ve considered imposing entrance fees at state parks as a way to balance the budget in tough financial times.

Details of what those fees might be were not available Monday and it’s not clear whether they would affect users of all of the state’s more than 100 state parks, forests and natural areas, most of which are located in downstate Illinois.

That may not actually be a bad thing, depending on the details.

Our system of state parks and historic sites are in crisis. Staffing levels at the various sites are at the lowest levels in decades. The Historic Sites Division of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency has lost around 40 percent of its staff in the last six or seven years. A number of sites are simply mothballed and barricaded off from the public.

I understand the desire of keeping free admissions so that everyone can participate regardless of income, but it's becoming increasingly clear that free access equals no access when there's no money.

In Southern Illinois in the counties along the Ohio River there are five IHPA sites and absolutely no state employees.

The Department of Natural Resources faces similar struggles with state parks though not as severe.

Like the current proposals from the U.S. Forest Service for fees on the Shawnee National Forest it's not the overall concept that's worrisome, it will be in the details.

I made this argument a decade ago and have repeated it ever since now through three governors: It's ridiculous to take a site such as the Old Slave House (which was once privately operated with admissions) and keep it closed because there's no money for staffing yet while there's enough interest to draw large crowds that would pay to enter the facility.

The same admission price wouldn't work for all sites. A market driven approach based on interest and operating costs much like California's approach should be used. There it costs much more to visit major sites such as the 115-room Hearst Castle ($20 to $30 for adults depending on the tour and the season) than it does to visit the Gold Rush museum at Sutter's Fort historic site ($4 for adults).

In Illinois there could be one price for Lincoln sites in Springfield, or one ticket for parks and sites in other tightly knit areas.

If the governor moves forward with this it's also time to look at merging the Historic Sites Division of IHPA with the Division of Land Management in DNR as well as the state museums into one site-based agency.

This may be brought about due to budgetary constraints, but there's larger problems out there that could be solved at this time if a big picture approach was taken.

Maybe we'll be surprised Wednesday. I just hope the issues of parks and historic sites will finally be addressed.

Country Inns & Suites Coming to Marion

Crews working for Zeller Construction demolished the back wing of America’s Best Inns this morning to make way for a new 66-room Country Inn & Suites hotel set to open later this fall.

"We hope to pour the footings the week after next. I want to be open no later than the middle of October," stated Jim Zeller in a news release this afternoon. He's the owner of the construction company and the new hotel along with his wife Kellie.

Zeller purchased the property located along Halfway Road and immediately south of 17th Street Bar & Grill last fall from the owners of the America’s Best Inns motel. The location will allow motorists easy access from the new interstate interchange now under construction north of Route 13.

The new Marion project will be Zeller's second entry into the hospitality industry. He built the 59-room Fairgrounds Inn in DuQuoin next to the state fairgrounds that opened in June 2006.

"I'm excited about this thing. I’m ready to go," he told me.

The new Country Inn & Suites will include a pool, hot tub, continental breakfast, a small conference room as well as an exercise room.

Corporate officials with the chain approved Zeller’s franchise application today. Zeller’s plans also include a second phase of 40 or more rooms to be built later in 2009 if needed. DART Design of Marion is the architectural firm handling the design. Zeller Construction will oversee the building phase.

With its location in Marion’s original tax increment financing district the $5 million project is eligible for some TIF incentives from the city. An application for a redevelopment agreement with the city has been filed.

The Country Inn & Suites hotel chain is owned by Carlson. According to the company website, it's an international mid-scale lodging chain with more than 380 locations worldwide founded in 1987. Each location features "residential architecture and home-like interior design with highlights that include hardwood flooring, lobby fireplace and front porch."

Today’s announcement of a new Country Inn & Suites hotel brings the number of lodging establishments either open or under development in the county to 28. Based on current plans it appears that there will be a net gain of 18 rooms to the county’s lodging inventory by the time the hotel is open.

By then we should have around 1,285 rooms or cabins available to tourists here in Williamson County. That figure also includes seven additional rooms or cabins added by three other smaller facilities.

The latest figures released by the Illinois Bureau of Tourism last summer showed the economic impact of travelers in Williamson County to be more than $90 million in 2006, up 7.4 percent from 2005. Those expenditures by tourists also added $4.9 million to state coffers and just over $2 million in local tax receipts.

Meanwhile we should also see the opening of another bed and breakfast later this spring in Hurst.

Winegeese Inn, owned by Tom and Sharon Lynch, will include three rooms for tourists. Later the couple will open the adjoining business, Celtic Vineyards, which will be the county’s first modern-era winery.

Other new lodging developments include three additional rooms now under renovation at Mary’s Bed and Breakfast in Herrin which opened last fall with one room, and a new cabin now under construction at Devil’s Kitchen Cabins near Devil’s Kitchen Lake.

Corps Announces Cutbacks at Rend Lake

Federal budget cuts will slash programs and services this year at Rend Lake, according to a news released issued last week.

The cuts are part of a region-wide series of cuts at Rend Lake, Carlyle Lake and Shelbyville Lake in Illinois as well as Mark Twain Lake in Missouri.

The following are impacted areas at Rend Lake:
  • The South Marcum campground, as well as the Dale Miller Youth area, will remain closed until October 1, 2008. The South Marcum Boat Ramp and picnic area will be open throughout the entire season.

  • The Gun Creek Campground will open 1 April – Nov 23 at a reduced service level for camping opportunities on the east side of Rend Lake.

  • The North Marcum Day Use area, which includes the North Marcum Beach, Shelters 7 and 8, and the North Marcum Boat Ramp, will remain closed all year.

  • The North Sandusky Picnic area and lake access which includes Shelters 3, 4, and 5 will remain closed until October 1, 2008.

  • The North Sandusky campground and boat ramp will be open to the public April 1 thru October 31, 2008 at a reduced service level.

  • The South Sandusky Campground will open 1 April at a reduced service level thru Oct. 31st.

  • The South Sandusky Beach will open two weeks later in May (open May 15) and Close 2 weeks earlier in September (close Sept 16.) Shelters 1 and 2 at the beach are available for rent throughout this time frame.

From the release:
The Rend Lake Visitor Center’s days of operation will be Saturday and Sunday only, from April 4 – May 18 and August 17 – October 26, 2008. Beginning May 18 and continuing thru August 17 the Visitor Center will be open Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Hours of operation will be from 10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. There will be no Environmental Science Series or Sunset Series of Programs (Saturday educational programs and Saturday evening musical programs) scheduled for the Visitor Center during the 2008 recreation season.

Persons having camping reservations at areas that are impacted by these park closures will be notified by the National Recreation Reservation Service regarding the reservation cancellations and a refund will be issued for fees paid.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers staff at Rend Lake is available to aid you in understanding the necessary operational changes and to assist you in finding an alternate area for your event. Contact the Rend Lake Project Office by phone at 618-724-2493 or by email at rendinfo@usace.army.mil. Information concerning facility opening/closing schedules is posted on the Corps of Engineers, Rend Lake web site at www.mvs.usace.army.mil/rend.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Thousands Attend Boat & Fishing Show

The 2nd Annual Southern Illinois Boat and Fishing Show was a success this past Super Bowl weekend. Based on our road counters we're estimating attendance at 8,925 which is up from the 7,200 last year.

We had a different mix of boat dealers and vendors this year with demand for space exceeding what we had available. The seminars were well attended and the kids flocked to hear Camo the Clown.

For the first time we had three wineries attending the event - Bella Terra Winery from the Tunnel Hill area, Pheasant Hollow Winery from Rend Lake and Shawnee Winery from Vienna.

The Youth Outdoor Education Foundation and the Williamson County Events Commission produced the event with the help of our show runner Ron Allen who did a great job as always.

We would also like to thank our sponsors Marion Toyota and Budweiser.

The 2009 Southern Illinois Boat and Fishing Show will be held again Friday through Sunday, January 30 to February 1.

Next up for outdoor enthusiasts is the Egyptian Collector's Association's spring Hunting and Trade Show at the Pavilion on March 13-15.

A month later is the brand new Southern Illinois Outdoors Expo scheduled for the second weekend of April on Friday-Sunday, April 11-13. The Williamson County Events Commission is producing the Outdoors Expo. For more information on the Outdoors Expo contact the Williamson County Tourism Bureau at 618-997-3690.

UPDATE: We've decided to hold off on starting a new outdoors show this year, but we're looking at it for 2009.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Joliet Columnist Jealous of Our Weather

Somebody up in the suburbs is jealous of our weather.

Don Gasaway is an outdoor writer who helps us spread the word about Williamson County and Southern Illinois. Someone writing in the Joliet Herald News commented on Don's latest column already talking about spring fishing.
On the heels of the most recent arctic blast, while we're pulling out ice fishing gear and loading snowmobiles onto trailers, southern Illinois outdoor writer Don Gasaway already was thinking about spring.

Cold? What cold? Gasaway already is making plans for spring.

That's okay. As I pointed out in a recent news release it's 9 degrees warmer on average during January in Williamson County compared with Chicago. Plus the wind chill isn't that big an issue like it is near Lake Michigan.

Either way word is getting out about the great opportunities we have here in the Southern Illinois outdoors. It's also a great article, check it out.

Cypress Creek NWR Gains New Leader

Mark Brown, formerly with Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge now drives to work a few miles to the south these days. He's the new refuge manager to Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge along the Cache River.

The Southern's Les Winkeler has the a story.