June 25, 2004

Study says river museum would draw tourists

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A proposed museum in Grand Tower should have no trouble attracting both money and visitors.

"We found more than 55 possible funding sources, and the results of our visitor sustainability surveys showed both locals and out-of-towners were very interested," said Nicole L. Davis, director of training in Southern Illinois University Carbondale's hospitality and tourism specialization.

"Overall, when we had all the numbers and finished all the interviews, we found the project to be feasible," Davis said.Davis and Patricia A. Welch, head of the Department of Animal Science, Food and Nutrition, which houses the specialization, spent seven months determining what it would take to make a Mississippi River Museum and Interpretive Center succeed in this small community where river pilots -- and river pirates -- once plied their trade.

This was good news for Grand Tower city councilwoman Jane E. Cole.

"It shows there's some interest," said the 1984 SIUC history graduate, who has long dreamed of such an attraction.

"This is one of the earliest settlements in Jackson County, if not the earliest, and I have always thought it would be a great place for tourism," she said.

Cole said the town has the perfect spot for a museum: the arson-damaged Masonic Hall on Front Street.

"Since I'm on the council, I've always said, 'We have plans for it,' to keep the city from tearing it down or selling it," she said.

Carbondale Convention and Tourism Bureau Executive Director Deborah "Debbie" L. Moore said retired riverboat pilots in the area have "a huge assortment of museum-quality pieces" they could loan the museum and the kinds of connections that could help them obtain other exhibits related to river lore.

"But this museum won't focus solely on the river itself," she said. "When Jackson County began, Grand Tower was the biggest place in it, odd as that may seem now. It was a booming center of commerce, and there's a wealth of photographs and other documents connected with that."

In addition, two striking rock formations, the Devil's Backbone and the Devil's Bake Oven, are just a hop, skip and a jump away.

Moore said the idea for the museum had been percolating on the back burner for years.

"I first started on this project in 1994 -- that's how long it takes to get things done sometimes," she said with a laugh.

"But because I don't have funds that can be used for projects outside Carbondale, I didn't have a source I could tap until funds from the Lower Mississippi Delta Initiative (a federal program aimed at fostering economic self-sufficiency in seven states) became available.

"And if it hadn't been for the University, we still wouldn't have had a feasibility study because it would not have been affordable."

Developing and promoting unique opportunities for tourism in the region are among the goals of Southern@150, the blueprint for the development of the University by the time it celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2019.

Davis and Welch began working on the study a year ago. They trawled the Internet looking for public and private agencies that could help get such a museum off the ground. They tried to get a fix on visitor potential by talking with folks at area festivals, malls, campgrounds and other public places and by mailing surveys to people who had sent letters to the tourism bureau asking about area attractions. They met with small groups in Anna, Carbondale, Grand Tower, Murphysboro and the University itself to talk about what would make Grand Tower a desirable destination. And they contacted businesses in and around the area to assess interest in locating or expanding there.

The search for funding sources turned up a wealth of possibilities.

"We found grants available for start-up, for building exhibits and events, even a handful for day-to-day operations," Davis said.

Visitor potential looks good, too.

"Most of those in the 'intercept' surveys were locals who knew Grand Tower," Davis said. "They indicated they would certainly go to a museum. And roughly two-thirds of the mail surveys we got back were very positive."

Moore said the museum would provide a great field trip destination for the region's schools, and she expects interest from outside the area as well.

"We have about 250 motor coach tours of senior citizens go through here each year," she said. "People from St. Louis invariably wanted to go to Grand Tower to see the river, even though they're right on the river in their hometown."

Focus groups said the presence of other amenities -- little shops, antique stores, coffee bars and full-service restaurants -- would help both Grand Tower and museum attendance.

"We think that with the announcement of the museum, there will be interest in business owners expanding into Grand Tower or opening new businesses there," Davis said.

In addition, Moore said, Illinois tourism officials have managed to get the Great River Road, which stretches from East Dubuque down to Cairo, included in the National Scenic Byways program, a 14-year-old federal effort that funds the promotion of roads with archaeological, cultural, historic, natural, recreational or scenic qualities.

"We have a marketing plan and greater hopes of federal money coming in to promote attractions all up and down this byway," she said.

The museum will need its own marketing plan plus a long-range strategy to get it off the ground and to keep it going once it's up and running.

The all-volunteer Greater Carbondale Tourism Development Foundation, also headed by Moore, created specifically to foster projects such as this, will assist with the planning and with fund raising, Moore said.

"Do they have a chance (of making it happen)? I believe they do," Moore said. "It's the best option Grand Tower has for bringing people into town, and the end result could mean an economically healthy community."