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Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2008 01:38 am

Recreation degradation

Governor’s cuts to tourism-focused agencies couldn’t have come at a worse time

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Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site, near Petersburg

Because of heavier-than-normal winter snowfalls, widespread flooding this spring, $4 gasoline, and an anemic U.S. economy, fewer people have visited state parks and historic sites this year. On top of that, Gov. Rod Blagojevich in July trimmed $1.4 billion from the state budget, including $14 million earmarked for natural-resources conservation and another $2.8 million for historic landmarks.

The cuts, which have drawn wide criticism, came just before the commencement of the busy — not to mention profitable — fall school field-trip season and as numerous organizations in Springfield and elsewhere in Illinois put the finishing touches on preparations for Abraham Lincoln's yearlong 200th-birthday celebration.

Even before Blagojevich announced the reductions, Illinois tourism was on the decline.

People have continued traveling to Springfield from all over the world, but tourism in the capital city "is somewhat down," says Kim Rosendahl, tourism director for the Springfield Convention and Visitor's Bureau.

She adds that several local and state groups have formed a historic-sites task force to examine the problem.

"It's not just high gas prices. You're looking at an overall economic downturn," she says.

"Can I pinpoint and say any one factor is the reason? Not without tracking down every single person who didn't come to Springfield and asking them," Rosendahl says.

Tourist spots around the state have experienced similar problems. According to Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the figure of 18.6 million visitors to state parks through the first six months of 2008 represents a 9 percent drop from the same timeframe last year.

Likewise, through June, the three dozen sites under the control of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency — including the Old State Capitol, the Dana-Thomas House and such Abraham Lincoln-related destinations as the Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices and Lincoln's New Salem State Historic Site, near Petersburg — experienced a 7 percent decline compared with 2007.

In response to the budget cuts, the IHPA was forced to alter hours of operation for many of the sites under its charge and laid off 80 seasonal workers in an attempt to narrow the budget gap. As a result, the state's most visited historic location, Lincoln's New Salem, trimmed 15 seasonal positions, cut business hours to five days per week from seven, and canceled a popular event — the demonstration of its carding mill, which turns raw wool into yarn.

Central Illinois' carding mill, operated by an ox walking slowly on a treadmill, is one of just three in the world and had drawn large crowds during five previous demonstrations held this year, says Tim Guinan, interim site manager for Lincoln's New Salem.

Without the trained workers, the carding-mill demonstrations planned for August had to be called off. It may be rescheduled, Guinan says, but nothing about the immediate future is certain.

"It's hard to plan anything right now," Guinan says. "We're just going day to day."

One tourism-related bright spot: The opening weekend of the 2008 Illinois State Fair saw a 14 percent increase in attendance over last year.

Contact R.L. Nave at rnave@illinoistimes.com.

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