As expected, the Illinois Office of Tourism officially pledged Wednesday to give Bloomington a $249,000 grant to help build a new visitors center downtown, according to WJBC radio. The museum will prominently feature Route 66 in its exhibits.
Illinois Tourism director Jen Hoelzel said the grant coincides with the office’s effort to bring more international tourists to Illinois. Hoelzel said international visitors talk about Route 66 “all the time.”
According to a news release from the McLean County Museum of History, the new visitors center will be called Cruisin’ with Lincoln on 66: The Bloomington/Normal Visitors Center.
It will be located in the ground floor (basement) of the Museum. This 1,200 sq. ft. center has been designed to attract to downtown Bloomington the more than 40,000 people a year who come to Illinois to drive on Historic Route 66, including weekend travelers and thousands of European and Asian vacationers.
Here they will learn from and compare the experiences of Lincoln in his travels with those of automobilists during the golden days of Route 66. The exhibits will tell stories about dining, lodging, and travel.
Accompanying the exhibits will be a reception desk, an expanded Museum store, videos, and digital kiosks with tourist information. We expect to attract 20,000 people by our third year of operation; of those, we anticipate 5,000 will visit the Museum, thus significantly increasing the Museum’s earned income though sales and admissions.
The logo for the museum, reflecting the Route 66 and Lincoln links, is shown above.
The radio station reported:
Bloomington-Normal Area Convention and Visitors Bureau Director Crystal said the new visitors center will help the Twin Cities benefit from international tourists.
“All of the visits that we are getting internationally, we want to get our share of that,” Howard said. “Up to this time, I don’t think we have. We need to pull them off the interstate and have them to stop in Bloomington-Normal. That is our goal.”
Hoelzle said Bloomington has the type of attractions international visitors want to see.
“There are two great brands in international tourism – Route 66 and Abraham Lincoln,” Hoelzel said. “They’re all right here in Bloomington.”
The visitors center is scheduled to open by spring.
In another report by WYZZ-TV, Bloomington is looking to a town to the north — Pontiac, Illinois — for its inspiration for drawing Route 66 tourists.
Count me as skeptical on Bloomington drawing 50,000 tourists a year at its visitors center anytime soon. Pontiac has had a full decade to cultivate a stream of visitors, and officials there say it didn’t happen overnight.
Pontiac also holds a sizable advantage with small-town hospitality — such as the mayor personally greeting tourists — that Bloomington will be hard-pressed to duplicate. Pontiac’s friendly attitude has won a lot of acclaim and repeat visitors over the years.
I praise Bloomington for hopping on the Route 66 bandwagon. But, as with another latecomer in Springfield, Missouri, it’s going to find it will have a lot of catching-up to do. Drawing those tourists is going to require tenacity and patience.