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

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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, but when I started to work on a new website design I discovered the 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.