Community leaders from all over the Metro East lined up for a breakfast buffet Jan. 16 in SIUE’s Meridian Ballroom. As they finished eating, SIUE Chancellor Randy Pembrook took the stage to announce the beginning of the annual Great Rivers & Routes Tourism Summit.
The chancellor emphasized the university’s impact on tourism, not only from students’ visiting families and out-of-town visitors to hear influential speakers on campus, but also for permanent fixtures such as the sculpture walk. One of 2019’s walk additions was a giant t-bone steak.
“I always say it’s there so that people know we have a ‘steak’ in higher education,” Pembrook said, to groans and scattered giggles from the audience.
He then invited John Hopkins, chairman of the Great Rivers & Routes Tourism Bureau, to the stage.
“This is a historic event,” Hopkins said. “Today we are here for the first summit meeting outside of Alton.”
The chairman went over the summit’s history, explaining how in 2018 the Great Rivers and Routes of Southwest Illinois brand was created as an umbrella for organizations such as All Around Alton and The Meeting of the Great Rivers, as well as communities neighboring the Riverbend.
“The rising tide raises the whole harbor,” Hopkins said. “If we help one city, we help them all.”
Hopkins went on to introduce Brett Stawar, president and CEO of Great Rivers & Routes. Stawar described events supported by Great Rivers & Routes in 2019, such as the Bike MS Gateway Getaway Ride, the Alton Catfish Classic, softball and tennis tournaments, and more. Great Rivers and Routes also hosted the Collaboration Beer Festival as part of Craft Beer Week, where a collaborative brew created by five local breweries — Peel Brewing, Grafton Brewhaus, Old Bakery Beer, Old Herald Brewery, and Recess Brewing — was debuted. The beer, Farmhouse 66, was made with entirely Illinois-grown ingredients.
Stawar also discussed the impact of media, saying Great Rivers & Routes has been successful in its move to expand tourism for the region. In 2019, the economic impact of tourism generated $695.5 million, a 4.3 percent increase over the prior year. One of the greatest impacts came from a boost in social media posts and advertisements, which even drew in 24 international travel writers from China, Germany, Mexico, and the United Kingdom.
Marketing and Communications Director Stephanie Tate next took the stage. She honored past Local Legends and announced three new award winners for 2019. Each received a blue trophy after a documentary-style clip was shown. 2019’s Local Legends were the “fairytale story” of Wildey Theatre in Edwardsville, the World’s Largest Catsup Bottle in Collinsville, and Route 66’s longest continually running diner, Ariston Cafe in Litchfield. A fourth legend will be announced later in the year.
Four speakers next discussed “game changers.”
Collinsville City Manager Mitch Bair spoke about the “Collinsville renaissance,” which includes renovations to Main Street, the Aqua Park, the new sports complex, and popular events and festivals, such as Italianfest and the Horseradish Fest.
HCI, a medical cannabis site, opened its doors for recreational adult-use cannabis sales on Jan. 1. The dispensary brought in $1.3 million in recreational sales in the first five days.
“When Brett talks about the strategic plan for tourism, I’m really proud to be a part of that,” Bair told the crowd.
The second game changer was Edwardsville’s Plummer Family Park. Kevin Head of the city of Edwardsville talked about the history of the park, which came from a program started in 2015 called A Better Place to Play. The Plummer family donated 70 acres of land for the park and the city purchased 13 adjoining acres. Inclement weather has moved the opening of the park to March, but that hasn’t stalled the city’s enthusiasm. The park will feature two full-size soccer fields, painted so up to four games can be played on each field; four synthetic diamonds for baseball and softball, 12 pickleball courts and a 70-foot flag pole.
“Come visit Edwardsville,” Head encouraged the summit attendees. “Our goal is to have the best park district in the Metro East.”
The third game changer was the plan for renovations to Carrollton’s Public Square, introduced by Patrick Pinkston of the Carrollton Public Square Initiative. Carrollton is a newcomer to Great Rivers & Routes, and the planned sprucing-up will be sure to stay true to Carrollton’s friendly small town feel.
“We feel like a little league team invited to Busch Stadium, but we’re ready to show; we’re still here and in the game,” Pinkston said.
Rounding out the summit, the fourth speaker was Kevin Carlie, AltonWorks president and CEO. Carlie spoke about the ongoing effort to revitalize the downtown area.
“We want to make Alton the healthiest and happiest city on the Mississippi River,” he said. “We do that by looking at one building, one street, one park, one opportunity at a time.”
Carlie outlined the company’s plan, which involves purchasing more than 30 commercial buildings and creating three districts — The Jacoby Arts District, The Broadway Maker’s District, and The Grand Entertainment District.
He also spoke of plans to create “rooftop space” on commercial buildings involving landscaping and livable options, living space construction in the Jacoby building, and new park areas.