Route 66 tourism plan gets green light
By Susan DeMar Lafferty email@example.com March 24, 2014 5:32PM
The Historic Route 66 bench, at 17332 S. Oak Park Ave., by artist Roger Gerencir is part of the Benches on the Avenue in Tinley Park, Ill. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times Media
Updated: April 26, 2014 6:13AM
Sitting at the confluence of three rivers, southwestern Will County has a lot to offer — the Chicagoland Speedway, the Route 66 Raceway, Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, the former Joliet Arsenal, and small historic towns.
Much of it is along a 25-mile stretch of historic Route 66 from downtown Joliet to Braidwood.
But what is doesn’t have is a cohesive, themed identity and signs to attract the thousands of tourists who travel Route 66, aka Route 53.
To address that, the Will County board recently approved a new corridor plan — the result of a yearlong grant-funded project — to showcase this area and make it a tourist destination and an economic engine.
There is an “untapped tourism potential” here, and tying all these natural, recreational and historical amenities together is historic Route 66, said project consultant Ferhat Zerin, of Gingko Planning and Design.
“Thousands of people drive here, but do not stop,” she said, as she presented the completed plan to the County Board. Many other towns along historic Route 66 which stretches all the way to California — have capitalized on this theme.
The goal is to encourage tourists to spend a day or two here, visiting the Joliet Splash Park, the Jackhammers, Route 66 Raceway, the historic sites, trails, parks, farms and restaurants.
It presents a variety of mechanisms to unify destinations from Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet to the Polk-A-Dot Restaurant in Braidwood into one tourist package.
The idea is not only to market what they have, but also to add amenities along the way.
Towns and businesses along the route also have been “great partners” in developing it, said Steve Lazzara of the Will County land use department.
“It is not meant to sit on a shelf,” he said, but includes implementation strategies, which will be tackled by a summer intern.
Given the tight budget constraints in the county and local government, the plan recommends a team approach to tackling this, by creating a tourism advisory council, with local city officials, business owners and venue operators. It also lists several funding strategies, such as grants, donations, transportation taxes and special fees.
“A forceful approach is needed to implement this plan successfully — one that leverages existing organizations while maintaining a tight focus on weaving the assets and opportunities within the corridor into a cohesive and complementary whole,” the plan stated.
The first step will be adding signage along I-80, I-57 and Route 66 to direct drivers to these destinations, Murals also could be created on the two railroad overpasses on Route 66 to create a gateway to the road, Ferin said.
The corridor plan also suggested:
Giving this area a specific identity and brand name that markets Route 66 and Will County.
Connecting existing bike trails, including the Wauponsee Glacial Trail, the I&M Canal State Trail, Centennial Trail and Kankakee River Trail to each other, and creating new trails along Route 53/Route 66 and along Manhattan/Arsenal Road. All of these could lead to other nearby destinations such as the Brandon Dam and Locks, Boyd’s Quarry, Braidwood Dunes and other natural areas and sites.
Adding new features such as an observation tower at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, so visitors can appreciate the beauty and vastness of this 19,000-acre restored prairie. Midewin also proposes to develop a 1,200-acre bison grazing area, and have a visitor tram travel through the pastures.
Implementing Wilmington’s vision for its Island City, which includes a kayak course as a recreational destination.
Creating more iconic Route 66-themed photo opportunities along the way, such as the Gemini Giant and Launching Pad Drive-In in Wilmington, to highlight the small historic towns of Elwood, Wilmington and Braidwood.
Hosting more events, such as a classic car theme night at the racetrack, a bicycle race along Route 66, a fishing tournament, and seasonal festivals.
Developing more hotels and bed-and-breakfasts to encourage tourists to spend more time here.