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Thursday, July 7, 2005 08:57 pm

Sunday morning coming down

Zombies have invaded Springfield. Don’t believe me? Venture downtown some Sunday morning. You will see clots of automatons restlessly roaming the streets, trudging ever forward, but shackled by the fact that they haven’t the slightest clue where they’re going. Their eyes, wide open but unfocused, sweep slowly side to side, hopelessly, searching for . . . two eggs over easy, hash browns, toast, a side of bacon, and a cuppa joe. Oatmeal for the mother-in-law. French toast for grandpa. Pancakes for the kids.

Might as well be hunting the Holy Grail.

When I first moved here, almost three years ago, I couldn’t help noticing that downtown Springfield — so vibrant during the week and on weekend nights — becomes a ghost town on Sunday mornings. Lamentations couldn’t cure it, so instead I embraced the void, occasionally spending those mornings taking my sons to the Old State Capitol Plaza and turning them loose on their scooters. I felt sure they wouldn’t knock down any pedestrians — can’t knock down what isn’t there.

This year, in April, everything changed. The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum opened, bringing at least 5,000 visitors per weekend. The three-day Memorial Day weekend brought 8,400 folks to the museum, according to ALPLM statistics.

Not surprisingly, some visitors crave nutrition either before or after trekking from Kentucky to Indiana to Illinois to Washington, D.C., and back to Springfield with our 16th president. If, for whatever reason, they decide to eschew the Augie’s outlet located inside the museum, these travelers will find a fair number of choices downtown — on weekdays. On Saturdays, the possibilities dwindle, especially in the afternoon. But Sundays are when you see the most wayfarers wandering listlessly, looking for food.

By my own informal survey (apologies to anyone I overlooked), their choices range from expensive fixed-price spreads at the two large hotels down to a sandwich at Subway and coffee at Starbucks. Further south, they may discover Caffe Panini (open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.), Trout Lily Café and Café Brio (both open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.), and Sammy’s Sports Bar and Grill (open 11 a.m. to midnight).

These are the kind of eateries that give tourists a unique and lasting impression of Springfield — the homemade cinnamon rolls at Trout Lily, the tamale cakes at Café Brio, the spicy fried pickles at Sammy’s, and the fresh brewed smoothies at Panini.

But sightseers stumble upon these treasures only if they’re optimistic and hearty enough to traipse several blocks south, which can seem like several miles if they’re accompanying toddlers or toddling elders, especially if the weather’s hot. And at present, there’s nothing showing them the way or promising that they’ll find shops open after passing so many that are closed.

Tim Farley, executive director of Springfield’s Convention and Visitors Bureau, hopes to produce a map of some sort showing tourists where to find restaurants and gift shops, and which ones are open on the weekends. But he won’t reach that goal anytime soon.

“I don’t have a budget for this,” he says.

Meanwhile, he continues to receive occasional e-mails from tourists complaining about the lack of dining and shopping choices downtown.

“One said, ‘Where’s the beef?’ We got a couple saying they were delighted with the downtown area but disappointed not to have any place to eat,” Farley says.

Victoria Clemons, executive director of Downtown Springfield Inc., says her organization has sent letters to more than 100 specialty chains, hoping to lure a bagel or doughnut-oriented operation to the area. “We’re trying to get them to come to Springfield based on our new demographic,” she says. “It’s frustrating, but we’re going through growing pains right now.”

Both Clemons and Farley say they’re trying to gently prod local eateries and shops — long accustomed to the ghost town scenario — into opening for business on Sundays.

“A lot of these are small businesses, and to bring in an entire staff for a day could be difficult,” Farley says. “If I try to talk them into it, I have to basically guarantee it will pay off financially, and I can’t really say I can guarantee it.”

Clemons says some shop owners regard Sunday as their sacred day off.

“These are unique, wonderfully eclectic businesses and they’re working 70 hours a week now,” Clemons says. “They may be weighing that as maybe that day off means more to me than the $200 I could make selling coffee.”

But the few businesses open on Sunday say they’re busier than expected.

Steve Mainwaring, manager of Panini, has had to increase staffing on both Saturdays and Sundays to keep up with the number of tourists — and locals — craving his apple fritters and lattes.

“It’s been profitable,” he says.

It probably also explains why all the zombies I see are walking south. The people I see walking back toward the north look healthier and happier.

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