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Illinois
WNIJ's summary of news items around our state.

Tourism Dollars In Northern Illinois: A Closer Look

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Tourism contributed $3 billion to Illinois in 2015.  That's according to preliminary numbers released by the US Travel Association.    Northern Illinois captured a decent portion of that money, but four counties in particular stand out. 

The Suburbs

At $458 million, Kane County captured the greatest share of tourist dollars.  Lula Cassidy of the Greater St. Charles Convention and Visitors Bureau says the area benefits from many Chicago visitors.  St. Charles in particular makes up half of the county’s hotel tax receipts.

“They’re coming to get away from the city, and with Elburn and being on the METRA, we’re just a short train ride away,” she said.

Some tourists are part of conventions, while others hike the county’s outdoor trails. On a more seasonal basis, people also come to Scarecrow Fest, an autumn event that's been featured in several regional magazines.

Cassidy says the county managed to garner $30 million in sales tax revenue in 2015, and they’re optimistic about the visitors yet to come.

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Rockford Area

Winnebago County is next, at nearly $350 million.  This is a record high for the area, and some of the spending can be attributed to local attractions  such as Rock Cut State Park and the County Fair in Pecatonica. However, Josh Albrecht of the Rockford Convention and Visitors Bureau, says the key to long-term interest is communal events.  A good example is the Rockford City Market.

“That’s bringing 5,000 people to the downtown core every Friday night throughout the summer from May to October,” he said. 

While some tourists may come solely for the market, Albrecht says these simple visits can have a powerful feedback effect.

“You know what’s here, you learn about it some more. You’ve explored the communities. Now you’re going to want to come back and come to one of the many microbreweries in our community or one of our fantastic museums," he said. 

Small businesses also incubate at these community events, and their new customers helped contribute to the nearly $25 million in tourism tax revenue that year. 

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Starved Rock

Third is LaSalle County, where tourists spent more than $190 million in 2015.   This is a 5.1% increase compared to the previous year.  The county’s most popular attraction is Starved Rock State Park, which sees more than two-million visitors annually.  Dr. Robert Navarro, of the Heritage Corridor Convention and Visitors Bureau, says a key to success was advertising outside the immediate area. 

“We’re doing distribution in Iowa and Wisconsin, and even in other parts of Illinois like Bloomington and Rockford and Peoria.  Those..... are good feeder markets for that region,” he said.

That’s not to say Starved Rock is the only place to go in LaSalle County.  Regular festivities like Ottawa’s Winefest, and various events at the Hegeler Carus Mansion keep drawing in visitors.  Navarro says tours down the Illinois River are also popular. 

“A lot of school groups will take advantage of the tours that are happening at the canal boats.  They’re at Lock 16,” he said.  

LaSalle tourist spending and tax revenue has grown for several years, but Navarro says the lack of a state budget meant  cutting back on advertising for eight months.  Because of this, Navarro expects a slight dip in next year’s numbers.

NIU /DeKalb County

Finally, there's DeKalb County, where tourists spent about $91 million,  This is an all-time high for DeKalb, Sycamore, and the surrounding communities, as well as the seventh straight year of spending growth.

Much of the revenue comes from regular events, ranging in scale from out-of-town weddings to large sports tournaments. DeKalb County Convention and Visitors Bureau Director Debbie Armstrong says something like the IHSA Football state championships can attract 30,000 people over one weekend.

"Every time events like that come to town, that means our hotels are full and then, also, local businesses get frequented," she said. 

Armstrong also cites the influence of local attractions, including the Egyptian Theater, Jonamac Orchards, and even a distillery.

“We have bourbon and whiskey and vodka being produced right here on one of the local farms,” she said. 

Armstrong says Whiskey Acres is the only farm-based distillery in the state.