By DENNIS GRUBAUGH
ALTON — Staff members at Alton Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau, still recovering from a challenging past year, will see a breakneck pace in 2016.
Despite having some of the biggest hurdles of its existence, the bureau is ready for anything. After all, 2015 had fire, floods and fear of state government.
CVB President Brett Stawar listed dozens of highlights from the past year during the 12th Annual Tourism Summit held in January. Somberly, he then acknowledged what a challenge the year had been.
“It was not the best year,” he said. “We had two historic floods. And we started out with a fire in our antique district. It kind of shuttered us all for a while. But the floods went away and we rose from the ashes, and we are back in business.”
The city of Alton received a CVB award for keeping most of late December’s flooding out of Downtown Alton.
Money for tourism still remains entangled in the state budget impasse, with several programs at the Illinois Office of Tourism on hold because of the uncertainty.
Money is being released piecemeal to local agencies like the Alton CVB, which is doing its best under the circumstances, Stawar said.
Much is at stake. State numbers for the area show $443 million spent in visitor expenditure in 2014, representing 3,360 jobs and $11.7 million in local tax receipts.
But the more recent numbers of the CVB show declines in some areas, in part because of the state’s fiscal situation, as well as major transitions involving two local hotels.
“We took a tumble in 2015, in total room nights (168,310), in total economic impact ($22.4 million),” Stawar said. “We took a dip for the first time since 2008, as a region,” he said.
Statewide in 2014, Illinois had around 110 million visitors, which was a 3.8 percent increase over 2013, said Cory Jobe, director of the Illinois Office of Tourism, who was keynote speaker at the Tourism Summit. Visitors spent an estimated $36.3 billion during their stay, which was a 5.1 percent increase over the previous year, he said.
Despite hurdles, Stawar said the bureau increased group bookings for the year, including 5,654 education delegates and 4,420 motorcoach delegates, representative of $1.2 million in economic activity.
This past year, there were eight dockings by the American Queen cruise ship, representing more than 5,000 combined passengers coming to Alton and Grafton.
“In 2017 and ‘18 our plans are to double the dockings,” Stawar said.
There are many reasons, he said, to be optimistic about 2016.
Sports marketing continues to be a vital part of the economy. Several major sports tourneys were held and will be repeated.
The MS Bike Ride, which attracted some 2,000 riders based at Lewis and Clark Community College when it was held for the first time in 2015, will return in September.
Alton riverfront events, primarily centered around the Liberty Bank Alton Amphitheatre welcomed 20,000 people.
There were also two, new and successful restaurant weeks in January and July.
This past year, CVB also added a “Kid’Cation” campaign during the last two weeks before school, specializing in a number of events inviting families to the region. It will be repeated this July.
– The Greater Alton area has several new restaurants, among them 4204 Main Street Brewery, Old Bakery Brewery, Elijah P’s Burgers & Brews, Journey, Morrison’s Irish Pub, Renewal at State Street Market, 3rd Chute, Dino’s Family Restaurant and Big John’s Cuban Cafe.
– Several big events will take place including: upgrades to the Bethalto Sports Complex; expanded programming at The Nature Institute; the opening of the Grafton Oyster Bar; the dedication of a Flood Memorial in Downtown Alton; the debut of the Lewis and Clark Confluence Tower Amphitheater on May 14; the introduction of TreeHouse Wildlife Center’s trained eagle, named Emerys; the reopening of National Great Rivers Museum; the completion of the U.S. 67 “BridgeWest” landscape project near Downtown Alton; the opening of Shogun’s Japanese Steakhouse; the opening of Argosy Casino Alton’s Hop House in February; the debut of Riverview Park’s enhanced river overlooks; and the completion of the new Amtrak train station in Alton.
By DENNIS GRUBAUGH