When you rack your brain for places to get away for a weekend, Havana, Illinois, might not be top of mind.
At first glance, Havana has a lot of raw ingredients needed for tourism. The Mason County seat sits along the Illinois River, about an hour's drive away from Peoria, Springfield, or Bloomington, as the crow flies.
University of Illinois recreation and tourism professor Dr. Sharon Zou says proximity to population hubs aren't the city's only asset.
"The Main Street downtown redevelopment is really impressive. So we kind of have a nice combination of urban kind of feeling, as well as the outdoor recreation parts of it," Zou said.
So what's missing? A comprehensive strategy to capitalize on Havana's assets.
That's where the I-Rural Team of the University of Illinois Extension and Public Engagement Connection Center comes into play.
The I-Rural team is piloting an effort to reimagine rural tourism development efforts in four Illinois river towns: Havana, Grafton, Galena and Savanna.
Last week, the team took a tour around Mason and Fulton counties, including the Emiquon Nature Preserve, Chatauqua National Wildlife Refuge, and Dickson Mounds. The untapped potential of those sites took Zou by surprise.
"There's more to offer than they expected," she said. "And how to get those words out, that might be one mild impression that I got, and hopefully the project can help."
Kathie Brown, the Community and Economic Development educator for the U of I Extension in Fulton, Mason, Peoria, and Tazewell counties, said the four-phase project starts with gathering information via workshops and individual interviews.
"A big part of what we hope to do is convene those conversations with multiple partners, and explore what those opportunities might look like," Brown said.
That feedback will then be used to tailor surveys targeted at tourists across the Midwest, said I-Rural project leader and tourism researcher Joelle Soulard.
"So trying to get a picture of who is interested in visiting the rural community, what types of activity they would like to participate in, where are they coming from, what is the typical demographic of the tourist in Havana?"
The I-Rural team will then compile a final report with insights and opportunities that not only Havana, but other rural communities, can use reinvent themselves as tourism destinations.
It's that kind of information that Cole McDaniel, executive director of the Spoon River Partnership for Economic Development, said will be put to good use in beefing up the region's existing tourism efforts.
"We really want to build on that, on that brand. And not only be able to drive new tourists to the area, but also be able to collect data on the tourists already coming here who we may not even know about, because there's not a great way to track that data right now," McDaniel said.
April Burgett is a small business owner and chair of the Havana Area Chamber of Commerce. She said tourists staying in Havana now can be divided into two groups.
"About half of them are coming in because they're looking to access all the natural resource tourism we have, really in the whole river valley," she said. "The other half just want to come here to relax and get out of the cities."
Short-term lodging opened last summer in the city's historic downtown. Burgett said most tourists are planning their visits depending on when they can book an Airbnb loft.
Brown said the goal is not only to draw more people in, but to figure out how to get them to stay longer in the region, as well.
"They may come here for a specific site in Havana, but if we can get them to stay longer, there are multiple things that they can do in this region. And that's what we really want to see happen," she said.
The Greater Peoria Economic Development Council and Peoria Area Convention and Visitors Bureau also also lending resources toward the I-Rural project.
It's hoped that Havana's new approach provides the template that other Illinois towns can replicate in their own efforts to draw more tourists.
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