After 40 years, area tourism promoters still don’t have a compelling answer to the central question of their trade, which is, How ya gonnna bed ’em down in Springfield, after they’ve seen the Tomb? As I noted back in April (“The Presidential museum turns five,” April 29), attendance at the Presidential museum even in the bicentennial year was only 410,825, well down from the 600,000 visits a year racked up in the year and a half after opening. As expected, the numbers in general for 2010 were down even more. As the State Journal-Register reported in December, tourism numbers had slipped by more than a third at some Lincoln sites this year. Hotel stays also fell, although, happily, neither number sank to the recession-year depths of 2008.
Since the 1970s, the City of Springfield has been trying to entice day-trippers to linger overnight. The Disneyfication of the Lincoln home neighborhood, the sound-and-light show at the Old State Capitol, the Old State Capitol itself – each was argued for and funded because of its promise to entice more visitors to make more and longer visits. The failure of each to do that justified spending on the next one.
Springfield tourism boosters are like end-of-the-worlders in their belief that the touring American can be enticed to linger for days; if the miracle doesn’t happen this year, well, who’s to say it won’t the next time? On the schedule at the moment are commemorations, exhibits and related hoopla about Lincoln-related people and events from the fun-filled 1850s and ’60s, beginning with the sesquicentennial of Lincoln’s election in 2010 and not ending until the 150th anniversary in 2015 of Lincoln’s assassination and return to Springfield for burial.
The tourism boffins err, I believe, in assuming that the way to get people to linger in Springfield is to give them more of Lincoln in the form of more sites, more media, more stories. A good example is the wireless audio tours of major local Lincoln sites now available to visitors to the Lincoln home. Useful they no doubt are to those eager to walk off the effects of the horseshoes they had for lunch, but the gizmos assume that the only thing to do in Springfield when you’ve finished looking at one Lincoln site is to look at another one.
People don’t linger in Galena (to take just one example) to learn more about lead mining. They linger because Galena itself is an interesting place to look at and walk in, and because there are things to do there when one tires – as one will – of learning about lead mining. By all means, improve the signage and the brochures and clean up the restrooms; it will make more pleasant trips to Springfield that most people will make anyway, such is Lincoln’s allure. If you want them to hang around, however, you have to make Springfield itself an interesting place to look at and walk in, where one finds things to do when one tires – as one will – of learning about Lincoln.
Or rather, make downtown Springfield a place that people want to look at and walk in. For years the city labored with one hand to make downtown an attractive destination for the visitors while with the other it contrived unwittingly to make it a place for locals to get out of as fast as possible by the support by successive city councils of a too-forgiving teardown policy and promiscuous commercial zoning that made almost anywhere in the city a cheaper place to open a business or shop than downtown.
Take parking. How many period and near-period buildings of the sort that create the ambiance that is so appealing along a block or two of South Sixth have been leveled for parking? Yes, the shopping and working public demanded it, and the city never committed itself to providing safe and attractive and convenient alternatives. Each private property owner was left to solve the parking “problem” as best he could, usually by tearing down a building next door. (Or by leaving downtown altogether.) Downtown needed a coordinated solution that would serve all property owners and forestall that kind of shortsighted demolition.
Yes, everyone says it – downtown is livelier than it’s been for years. This is like saying that Grandpa has come out of his coma and is sitting up in bed. Andrew Ferguson exaggerated when he called Springfield a clapped-out old burg, but downtown still presents a forlorn aspect to the experienced traveler, in spite of the new street furniture and the kiosks and the statues. (There are more statues than people on the street many hours of the day.) It’s hard enough to get a governor to stay an extra night in Springfield when the law requires it. The capital will never be a more attractive tourist destination until it becomes a more attractive city for both residents and visitors. If you build that downtown, believe me, they will come.
Contact James Krohe Jr. at email@example.com.