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Thursday, April 15, 2004 03:53 am

Economy class

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Pass the governor’s budget and Marge Heissinger, longtime head of the Central Illinois Tourism Development Office, may be looking for work.
PHOTO BY TODD SPIVAK

Veteran state employee Marge Heissinger may be out of a job come July.

For 16 years Heissinger has run the Central Illinois Tourism Development Office, which would be axed under Gov. Rod Blagojevich's current budget proposal.

Heissinger's office, one of six in the state, helps market and promote tourism for smaller communities in a 28-county area that includes Bloomington, Champaign, Decatur, and Springfield.

Blagojevich announced during his February budget address -- now referred to as 'Black Monday' by some industry leaders -- a dramatic 50 percent across-the-board cut to the state's tourism promotion program. The regional offices would be hardest hit, with two-thirds of their funding eliminated.

"We're not sniveling," says Heissinger, wading waist-deep through Illinois travel guides and brochures last Friday inside her cramped offices on the third-floor mezzanine of the Hilton Springfield. "We're determined to take the high road and persuade those in power to change their minds."

Legislators are about to get an earful on the unseen consequences of reducing tourism funding.

On Wednesday, April 21, hundreds of Illinoisans employed by the tourism industry plan to rally on the steps of the Capitol to lobby against the cuts; some will testify that afternoon before the House Tourism Committee.

Regional office leaders have also begun a letter-writing campaign. Locally, several dozen officials representing small towns in central Illinois, including Litchfield, Marshall, Pana, Staunton, and Taylorville, have sent missives championing the impact of Heissinger's office on their economies.

"The tourism industry is one of the bright spots for much of rural Illinois and holds the hope of stabilizing areas by bringing much needed revenue to local businesses and tax revenue to our local governments," wrote Tom Martin of Mt. Pulaski Community Development.

Blagojevich's budget proposal earmarks just $22 million for tourism programs for fiscal 2005. That's a steep reduction from the $75 million allotted to the industry in 2003, and the $50 million provided last year.

Becky Carroll, spokesperson for the governor's Office of Budget and Management, says the cuts are unavoidable as the state attempts to plug a projected $1.7 billion deficit without increasing income or sales taxes.

"It's a shared sacrifice," says Carroll. "If we can't afford something, we're not going to pay for it."

Experts admit it's difficult to quantify precisely what impact the cuts would have.

Statewide, the industry last year directly employed some 300,000 people, including those working in restaurants, hotels, casinos, gas stations, and visitor sites.

According to Sue Vos, chairman of the Illinois Council of Convention and Visitors Bureau, the cuts would cause at least 10 percent losses in economic activity, jobs, and state and local tax dollars.

In Springfield -- second only to Chicago in generating tourism dollars -- Vos predicts the cuts would result in some 300 layoffs and more than $500,000 in lost local tax revenues.

"It doesn't make sense to reduce those dollars," says Tim Farley, executive director of Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau. "We're an economic driver; we're very important to this economy."

For years the state's tourism industry has been funded through taxes paid by hotel customers. Visitors to Springfield pay a 10 percent hotel tax, a third of which funds the city's Bureau of Tourism.

But state funding for tourism has decreased with the loss in hotel tax revenues resulting from the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Advocates say additional cuts by the state could deflate any new growth in the industry, and even set Illinois back in the regional war for tourism dollars.

"Our bordering states, like Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Missouri, are happier than pigs in mud," says Vos. "They're rubbing their hands together, expecting a huge windfall."

A little bit of money for marketing can go a long way, contends Patrick Snyder, executive director of Visit Illinois, a federation of state tourism organizations.

For instance, Snyder points to the $3 million the state invested toward advertising the 1992 Breeder's Cup in Arlington Park, which returned $57 million to Illinois.

Snyder says upcoming attractions like the opening of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield and the bicentennial anniversary of the Lewis and Clark expedition in Alton are other potential cash cows for the state.

"But if funding for marketing dries up," he warns, "you can build it and no one will come."

Becky Carroll, the governor's spokesperson, rejects this claim, saying, "Illinois throughout its history has served as a destination for business and leisure tourists. The idea that the tourism industry is going to disappear is unrealistic."

Even so, Heissinger says she remains concerned about the small, out-of-the-way towns whose treasures, now prominently displayed in the glossy travel guide published annually by her office, could go hidden from public view.

"This governor needs to understand how valuable tourism is to our rural communities," she says. "He's not the first [governor] to face fiscal problems. We want to be part of the solution."

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