State park drew one of its largest-ever crowds in 2019
In late summer, Pam Grivetti launched a letter-writing campaign trying to get Springfield to pump more money into Starved Rock State Park, warning of eroding trails and capacity issues.
“For the most part, it’s fallen on deaf ears,” said Grivetti, president of the Starved Rock Foundation. “But I’ll keep trying, definitely.”
Grivetti soon will have some fresh data to help persuade Springfield to send help. By the end of the year, Starved Rock State Park will have welcomed 2,467,263 visitors this year, which would make 2019 the fourth-busiest year on record.
For Starved Rock, that figure is not breath-taking — the park cracked 2.8 million two years ago — and is only 4 percent higher than last year’s figure.
Nevertheless, 68 percent of this year’s visitors (1.7 million) jammed the park from May to October, which has snarled traffic in Utica and increased the wear-and-tear on the trails. Managing the crowds — not turning them away — remains a priority.
And while capacity problems are not a problem for Starved Rock’s sister, Matthiessen State Park had a big year, too.
Matthiessen was projected to finish the year with more than 423,000 visitors, though a strong December finish could make 2019 the third-busiest year on record.
Why was attendance in 2019 strong, but not record-setting? The data reveal a few clues.
Blame it on the rain
There was an abundance of rain this spring (just ask our farmers) and river levels were higher than normal an estimated 180 days or more, which frequently washed out the riverside parking areas.
Starved Rock did have a record August (326,000 visitors) but also had four months with below-average attendance thanks to wet weather and closed parking lots. Tourism fell notably in May, when Starved Rock’s monthly total slipped 3 percent below average.
Matthiessen can blame Mother Nature for a remarkably bad autumn season, with below-average attendance in September and November and only a break-even total in October. The Vintage Illinois Wine Festival was a wash this year, and that held Matthiessen’s September total to 10 percent below average.
Utica fire chief Ben Brown agreed that Mother Nature probably suppressed the attendance, citing not only the attendance figures but also his department’s relatively limited accident log. Though there were two serious falls (both fatalities) this year, the vast majority of the department’s calls were for minor accidents such as twisted ankles.
“That parking lot was closed a couple of weeks and that meant the trails were muddy, too,” Brown said, agreeing that Mother Nature did her part to keep attendance from surging to record highs.
Weekdays are up
Tourism officials have been pushing for visitors to come during the weekdays, not during the weekends.
It seems to be working, judging not only from visitor data but from bookings at Starved Rock Lodge.
“It’s been a few years now since we launched our campaign ‘Why Wait for the Weekend?” and we feel our message is being heard,” said Amy Trimble, CEO of Starved Rock Lodge. “We know that our guests can have a great experience if they stay here mid-week, that’s why we encourage everyone to use the vacation time they’ve earned and book a trip to the Starved Rock State Park and Lodge.”
Grivetti acknowledged that weekday promotions are getting traction, “but weekends are still over the top.”
Grivetti recommended the marketing campaign be tweaked to encourage people to come not only during weekdays but during the little-visited winter season, when the park can well accommodate additional cars and foot traffic. She pointed out that spring and summer tourists are often surprised to learn Starved Rock even is open in winter. “The park is yours November through April,” she said.
No complaints in Utica
Utica businesses had a banner summer and, yes, Starved Rock has been one of the reasons why.
Mayor David Stewart said park visits, an advertising campaign, the addition of summer events such as Pork Fest, and the reopening of the water park at Grand Bear Lodge all led to brisk business for the village. Utica posted monthly sales records in June, August and September, putting the village on pace for a record sales year.
“The uniqueness and quaintness of our downtown attracts visitors not only going to Starved Rock but from people here in the Illinois Valley,” he said. “We have a great business community in general, and they’re very good at being proactive.”
Starved Rock may be only part of the larger equation, but data suggest Utica businesses are enjoying brisk sales months when the park draws large crowds.