Why these 5 communities in Illinois believe they can become outdoor-recreation destination

Nick Vlahos
Journal Star
A line of 20 canvas "glamping" tents overlooks a mile-long stream brimming with trout at the Sankoty Lakes Resort and Retreat in Spring Bay. The new 220-acre resort is a work in progress but is open for business. The 30- by 25-foot tents accommodate up to five "glampers," while larger cabins can serve seven guests.
  • Years-long process could help bring more tourists to town, with more revenue from them to aid cities
  • Reinvention of Ottawa and other cities near Starved Rock helps serve as a model
  • Outdoor recreation is an $800 billion industry across the nation

PEORIA HEIGHTS — Mike Phelan sees a lot of green around Peoria Heights. It might attract a different variety of green, as he sees it.

The potential for increased tourism — and the associated businesses and tax revenue it can bring — prompted Phelan, who is Heights village president, to help spearhead a loose grouping of five communities that line the Illinois River to the north.

Dubbed the Riverview Coalition, the group is making its first major event the Bridge-to-Bridge River Drive Festival. Peoria Heights, Chillicothe, Lacon and Spring Bay are participants. Henry is a member of the coalition but is not participating in the festival.

Scheduled for Sept. 18-19, the festival includes concerts, markets and other events along both sides of the river on a 52-mile loop between the McClugage Bridge in Peoria and the Illinois Route 17 bridge at Lacon.  

But the main attraction might be the scenery — the bluffs, the river, the foliage and the wildlife. Illinois Route 29 on the west side of the river and Illinois Route 26 on the east side are the conduits.

“Fifty-two miles of river view,” Heights village spokesman Mike Bailey said. “Is there another place in the Midwest where you can do something like that?”

Capitalizing on an $800 billion outdoor recreation industry

A bald eagle carrying nesting material

Development of bicycle trails and outdoors-related lodging along that stretch is underway or is expected soon. It’s all a way for those riverside communities to tap into a national outdoor-recreation market in which about $800 billion is spent annually, according to estimates by the Outdoor Industry Association.

Eventually, if all goes as envisioned, the Heights-to-Lacon river stretch might compare favorably with the Galena and Starved Rock areas as ecotourism destinations in north-central Illinois, according to Phelan.

“We’ve got the river. We’ve got Grandview Drive. We’ve got Tower Park. We’ve got the Rock Island Trail,” he said about the concept’s genesis. “It might not be a destination where people are going to come for a week and stay, but maybe a couple of nights.

“I thought this would be a perfect fit for us.”

Developer Kim Blickenstaff has added Poplar Park to his plans to reclaim a portion of the Illinois River shoreline through Peoria Heights and beyond.

Local entrepreneur/philanthropist Kim Blickenstaff is underwriting the coalition, at least initially. Blickenstaff also helped develop Sankoty Lakes Resort and Retreat, a recently opened Spring Bay facility that specializes in luxurious camping — or “glamping,” as it might be better known.

More:Glamping in tents: A sneak peek inside the Sankoty Lakes Resort in Spring Bay

But Phelan’s interest precedes Blickenstaff’s involvement and accelerated a few years ago after Beth Khazzam was elected to the Peoria Heights Village Board. She helps oversee economic and community development.

Khazzam and Phelan took particular note of how an upstream Illinois River town — Ottawa, an epicenter of the Starved Rock region — has been reinventing itself. Peoria Heights has been in that process for almost 40 years, since the closure of its major industrial outlet, the Pabst brewery.

Once reliant on glass and watch-dial manufacturing, Ottawa switched focus in the early 2010s to emphasize nearby natural areas. It’s helped lead to a lively downtown that has few vacant storefronts and plenty of restaurants and other small businesses.

Peoria Heights already has downtown vibrancy. What’s become known as “Restaurant Row” along Prospect Road attracts plenty of Peoria-area residents, particularly on the weekends. That gives the Heights an advantage, according to village officials.

More:This $6 million plan is designed to bring more people to Prospect Avenue in Peoria Heights

Proximity to the Chicago metropolitan area also can lead to substantial crowds around Starved Rock, which millions visit each year, according to Ottawa-area tourism officials.

“The idea is to capture some of this tourism that is going to Ottawa that is really overpopulated at this point,” Khazzam said about the coalition. “During COVID, people are wanting to be outside. They want outdoor vacations. They want to be in fresh air.”

Those desires incorporate traditional outdoor pursuits, such as hunting and fishing.

“We have people flying in very stealthfully from Boston and New York on private jets, because some of the deer hunting in our area is the best in the country,” Khazzam said.

Birdwatching also a major attraction, particularly bald eagles that be found along the river in winter. Lacon officials are considering construction of a birdwatching tower, according to Khazzam. One was erected in Chillicothe last year.

More:An extension of East Peoria's trail system could finally be in the works. Here's the plan

Farther south, multipurpose trails are planned along and west of Route 29. Once those trails are connected to existing ones, a true network can form, Bailey said.

Such a network could attract bikers and hikers from around the region, perhaps for stays of three or four days.

“Those dollars are coming from outside of the community,” Phelan said. “We can continue to have more cops on the street, pay them well and continue to improve our streets and our infrastructure.”

None of this is expected to be an overnight sensation. Bailey, Khazzam and Phelan said this inter-community cooperative effort is the beginning of a yearslong process.

But unlike a smokestack-style industry, perhaps, local flora and fauna isn’t necessarily a threat to pull up stakes one day and head for greener pastures. There's no need to rush.

“A lot of these riverfront communities have fallen on tough times over the years,” Bailey said. “They’ve lost industry. The Heights is a little ahead of that game, but we want to reintroduce people to these communities. They’ll be surprised at what they find.”

COMING FRIDAY: Years ago, Ottawa decided its future was best suited to ecotourism. We’ll look at how that effort has gone, and what advice it can offer its counterparts downriver.

Nick in the Morning