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Sports editor

Les Winkeler is sports editor and outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan.

For the past 10 days, the editorial board has been interviewing candidates for seats in the Illinois General Assembly and for the U.S. House of Representatives.

In the interest of fairness, we have asked the candidates the same slate of questions.

We asked each of the candidates for their ideas for economic development in Southern Illinois. Predictably, some of the candidates touched on the tourism industry, or lack thereof, in this beautiful corner of the state.

On a good day, Republicans and Democrats would have a difficult time agreeing that today is Thursday.

However, most of the candidates believe Southern Illinois is not reaping the benefits of its natural beauty.

This isn’t a novel thought. It seems I’ve discussed this issue with candidates for the past decade. Yet, little has changed.

This year’s crop of candidates have actually produced some ideas … other than adding a few signs along the interstate.

There is, of course, no easy fix.

Over the years, local tourism bureaus have dutifully churned out slick four-colored brochures touting the hunting, fishing and hiking opportunities Southern Illinois has to offer. There’s nothing wrong with those efforts, or the aforementioned signs, but primarily, those provide information to people who are already here.

What the region, and for that matter, the entire the entire State of Illinois, needs is outreach. It needs impact.

One candidate pointed to the tourism efforts of Michigan and Wisconsin. If you travel to the northern parts of Illinois (by that I mean well past Interstate 70) you’ll see television ads promoting the natural wonders of those states.

Take a step further — if you travel to Wisconsin and Michigan, you’ll inevitably get follow-up mailings or emails, asking you to come back.

Those states make an actual effort to attract visitors and keep them coming back.

How many people outside Illinois are aware of the natural wonders of the Shawnee National Forest, the Cache River swamps, the lunker bass in Crab Orchard or the slab crappie that call Rend Lake home? Are people outside Illinois aware of the quaint beauty of river towns like Alton, or the depth and quality of historic sites in Springfield?

Granted, the state doesn’t have buckets of money sitting around, but a good marketing plan wouldn’t hurt.

Second, unless you’re driving, it’s not easy to get to Southern Illinois. On the other hand, you can get close to anywhere in the region by driving Route 13 or interstates 24 and 57.

Which brings us to air travel.

There are two quality airports within 15 miles of Carbondale. Yet, there is limited commercial service.

I’m not naïve. You can’t call one of the small airlines and demand they start flying into Marion or Carbondale. However, if potential customers begin inquiring about flights, perhaps it could happen.

As another of the candidates noted, tourism doesn’t just happen, it takes work.

Mother Nature has taken care of the difficult part. We have woods, rivers and lakes to attract tourists. We have quaint towns, wineries and excellent eateries.

What we don’t have is a plan. This is more difficult than “Build it, they will come.”

It’s also not a chicken and egg argument. We, the region and the state, have to get the word out.

If you get a chance to press candidates on the issue, do it. Ask them if they have a plan. If they don’t, tell them to formulate one or you’ll take your vote somewhere else.

LES WINKELER is the outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at les.winkeler@thesouthern.com, or call 618-351-5088 / On Twitter @LesWinkeler.

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