Aug 152013
 




The Illinois 53 corridor plan calls for, among other things, creating attractions that would be “photo opportunities” luring Historic Route 66 travelers.

When you get right down to it, there are few day trip or weekend destination spots in Illinois other than Chicago, Galena and, maybe, Springfield.

But one untapped possibility, the magic key to the economic engine known as “tourism,” is right in Joliet’s back yard.
Some people refer to it as the “Mother Road.” Joliet folks know it better as Route 53, aka Historic Route 66.

Ten months ago, Ginkgo Planning & Design Inc. was hired to by Will County come up with a plan to turn the Illinois 53 corridor between Joliet and Braidwood into a magnet for day-trippers with money in their pockets and escapism on their minds.

What they’ve come up with was presented to the Joliet City Council’s Land Use Committee Wednesday, and is nearing the point at which it will be drafted into a blueprint for implementation, Ginkgo Principal Zerhat Zerin said.

It still lacks a name, but the working concept is “6 Stops on 66,” Zerin said.

“Just like we think of Door County (as a destination), we want to think of this as one place,” she said. “We have this challenge of how do we tie it all together?”

Essentially, the Orland Park firm, working with a steering committee of representatives from the communities along the route, cataloged the corridor’s “assets” and divided them into six areas.

The key to each is to establish a “photo opportunity” — something large, iconic or quirky that makes drivers want to stop and take their photo in front of it, Zerin said. Wilmington already has theirs with the Gemini Giant, the huge spaceman holding a silver rocket outside the now-closed Launching Pad Drive-In.

Think of a giant statue of Abraham Lincoln in front of letters spelling out “Mother Road” or maybe a dozen cars stacked on a spindle (similar to the now-gone Berwyn landmark) or set into the ground a la the Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas, Zerin said.

Joliet is the “North Gate” — the trip’s starting point and home to the Route 66 Visitors Center at the Joliet Area Historical Museum. Train overpasses under which Illinois 53 traffic drives could be painted to alert motorists that they are entering the historic corridor, Zerin said.

Other existing or potential attractions include Joliet’s Union Station and Brandon Lock and Dam, the Illinois & Michigan Canal and Wauponsee Glacial trails and a former quarry that could one day be used for zip-lining, cliff-climbing and other recreational uses, she said.

Another key destination would be Chicagoland Speedway, which draws as many as 150,000 visitors on race weekends but offers few reasons right now for people to stop otherwise, Zerin said. Speedway officials are very interested in working with the group to make it part of the Route 66 tour, she said.

Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Wilmington and the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood are two sites that have the potential to draw huge tourist numbers but currently are little known to people outside of the area, Zerin said.

Midewin will be adding bison to their grounds next year, she said, and that will be a great lure. Another would be a proposed lookout tower incorporating an existing pedestrian bridge giving visitors a panoramic view of the hundreds of acres of restored prairie, Zerin said.

It’s estimated the tower would cost $5 million, and officials at the Illinois Department of Transportation have already been briefed on the idea, she said.

“They did not say no,” she said. “That’s a good thing.”

The bottom line is as many as 30,000 people a year, many from foreign countries, seek out Historic Route 66 and follow it from Chicago to California, Zerin said. The goal now is to capitalize and expand on that, she said.

Kendall Jackson, the city’s director of planning and economic development, sits on the group’s steering committee. Many things, such as improved signage and painting the railroad overpasses, can be done relatively easily and for not a lot of money, he said

“A lot of these things are already in the works,” Jackson said. “I think that the crucial thing about this plan is that it ties all of these assets all together. I think this is a plan that has a really good chance of being implemented and working.”

By Karen Sorenson – Plainfield Patch