Peoria Journal Star

September 23, 2005

Route 66, Illinois River Road gain scenic status


WASHINGTON, D.C. - In a move that supporters hope will boost tourism and economic development, Historic Route 66 and the Illinois River Road were designated national scenic byways by the U.S. Transportation Department on Thursday.

The federal designation makes the roadways eligible to apply for grants for administration, marketing, landscaping and construction of visitor centers and other amenities.

"It brings tourism. It brings dollars. It highlights the history of our state," said U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Peoria, who attended the designation ceremony.

Historic Route 66 was a main route west for motorists after it was built in 1926. It's known for its mom-and-pop diners and kitschy roadside attractions.

The Illinois portion stretches 420 miles and runs from Chicago to East St. Louis, including sections of Springfield and surrounding communities. In Illinois, much of the old Route 66 parallels Interstate 55.

"Route 66 winds more than 2,000 miles from Chicago to L.A. and is so much more than just a highway," said Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. "It's a symbol of our love for the open road and that can-do spirit of individualism and adventure that is such a vital part of the American way of life. The Illinois River Road is a window to our rich native American cultural legacy and the natural splendors of our state."

The Illinois River Road, known as the "Route of the Voyageurs," after the early French explorers, covers 271 miles through the heart of the state from Ottawa to Havana, including the Peoria area. It includes much of Routes 26 and 29 on each side of the river and highlights seven nature trails.

The River Road winds from the path of the river to include Princeton and Canton.

Canton Economic Development Director Mark Rothert said a place on the byway "affords greater exposure to our nature-based tourism."

In Havana, Economic Development Director Terry Svob said the designation "will make people aware of us nationwide and possibly worldwide," since the road will be recognized as a scenic byway on maps.

Svob said the designation means he can apply for grant money for the Illinois River Center at Havana. Costing between $7 million and $10 million, the proposed center would offer a health and fitness center, upscale lodging with 40 to 60 rooms, conference center space for Spoon River College, a senior center and a restaurant.

Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn called Thursday's announcement "a great victory" for nature-based tourism in Illinois.

As the byway winds south along the Illinois River, it passes Banner Marsh and Rice Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area in Fulton County. A Chicago company has applied for a permit to mine next to those areas.

"(Visitors) see an eagle, they see a heron, they see a pelican, then they see a strip mine?" Quinn said. "It's essential that we not have incompatible uses."

The Illinois Route 66 Heritage Project and the Peoria Area Convention and Visitors Bureau plan to apply for federal money to prepare interpretative and marketing plans for the scenic byways, which can range from $50,000 to $150,000.

In 2003, Illinois received $1.2 million for the five existing scenic byways within its borders.

Illinois spent $500,000 through the Illinois Bureau of Tourism to promote the roadways as part of its overall efforts to boost tourism in the state.

"We have a lot of rural communities that need to be able to display their authentic America and be able to keep the identity that they have because that's what makes them special," said Vickie Clark, senior vice president of Peoria Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. "We're not looking for developments like a Disney World. We're looking for something that is real, that people can experience in the heart of America."

Journal Star reporter Brenda Bowen contributed to this story.