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Thursday, March 9, 2017 12:20 am

Bowls on a stick

Why tourism promises more than it delivers

In 1964, approximately 750,000 people visited Lincoln’s tomb. Today the tomb draws about half that many visitors.
PHOTO BY CAROL WEEMS
I have written often in the past about tourism development in Springfield. The topic is a hardy perennial – not because there are always new things to say, but because there are always new reasons to say the old things again.

The newest new reason is the “wow” park being contemplated for the Y block downtown. The Springfield attorney who is working on the project for Bruce Rauner told the SJ-R that they were looking to build something “extraordinary, something people would drive 40, 50 miles just to bring their kids.” Sad, really, how much our civic ambitions have shrunk. I remember the 1950s and ’60s, when tourism planners talked about the world coming to Springfield. Now they are happy to draw ’em in from White Hall and Winchester.

Back then, Springfield’s industrial base already was eroding, and civic leaders looking for new industries to bring to town were delighted when someone told them that a new industry was already here, in the form of tourism. In 1964, approximately 750,000 people visited Lincoln’s tomb, although (local officials complained) “only” about 600,000 visited the Lincolns’ home. During the administration of Nelson Howarth, the city set up its own Tourism and Area Development Commission. “It is apparent that tourism and conventions now are now profitable things for Springfield,” the commission explained to an amazed public, “and with promotion can become a real Bonanza.”

Clyde Walton, the state historian who also chaired the historical and tourism development committee of the downtown merchants and property owners association of that day, knew better. Most of those visitors were schoolkids. As for Lincoln pilgrims, they’d buy lunch and maybe a Lincoln paperweight and then blow town. What was needed was more “wow” attractions than could be seen in one day, to tempt tourists to stay overnight.

Creating those attractions occupied Springfield for more than 50 years. The Lincoln home area was turned into a “miniature Williamsburg,” the Old Capitol (“a boon to tourism”) restored, the law offices saved, Abe World created. We were given sound-and-light shows, visitor centers, reenactments and promotions enough to gag marketing majors, who can swallow anything. The result? In recent years the tomb draws more like 300,000-400,000 people a year and fewer than 250,000 visit the carefully restored, as-he-lived-in-it house of the greatest American president.

People used to come to Springfield to experience Lincoln. Now they come to be entertained. Unhappily for Springfield, we live in a culture in which everything from being elected president to selling car insurance depends on entertaining people. We eat and drink and dream entertainment of the most cunning and clever sorts. There are only so many ways you can recast Lincoln’s story as soap opera or tragedy or whodunit; more diverting fare is found on a dozen cable channels, and you don’t have to drive to Springfield to watch it.

Yet new ideas to try keep being proposed, in part because we now have lots of people who get paid to propose them. Reading about their efforts is like watching Erich Brenn’s old bowl-spinning routine on the Ed Sullivan Show. When a bowl started to wobble it was spared crashing to the stage by a last-moment push from the master. There seems always to be an anniversary or film tie-in or something to keep things in the Lincoln tourism biz spinning for another couple of years. It’s amazing how they do it. But even when they do, they still have just a spinning bowl on a stick.

Most tourism promotions are harmless fun and I wouldn’t bother to write about this newest one except that the wow park might prove not to be. I worry that those who making decisions about the Y block will close off other options for the parcel that will be better for the city. There was serious talk in the 1950s about tearing down the Old State Capitol. The law offices and Vachel Lindsay’s house were vulnerable. The city would have earned very little in the way of future tax revenues or public convenience compared to the cost if it had allowed any of them to be torn down. The return on investment from a park on the Y block would be very different. Even a wow park would add little of real value, but at a very high cost in future opportunities. If a wonder wall and dancing fountain and tram line are what people want, then build them by all means, but build them at the fairgrounds, where those sorts of thing belong.

A long time ago in these pages I suggested that the only way to get tourists to stay in Springfield overnight would be to steal the distributor cap from every car in the Lincoln home parking lot. Car engine technology has changed but nothing else has.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CaptBogue@outlook.com.

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