Outdoor Recreation in Southwest Illinois

Outdoor recreation in Illinois is key to moving forward with planning along the Meeting of the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway

Project Synopsis

Over the last 30 years, considerable investment has been made in recognizing the natural capital of this Great Rivers Confluence Region and harnessing its contribution to the local and regional economy. The growth and getaway appeal of this high-quality, unique outdoor recreational opportunity is undeniable.

Tourism is an important influencer and contributor to sustaining Illinois’ position as a top tier GDP state (IL currently ranked 6th).

As we move into the 2nd decade of the 21st century, we are well positioned to optimize the foundation we have built and improve the destination we have and reveal the Meeting of the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway Region as a Gateway to our iconic Mississippi River, one of our nation’s most recognizable water resources. Over a period of three decades, an inter-jurisdictional/inter-organizational and multi-sector effort has produced a solid platform of attractions along a protected viewshed boasting thousands of acres of quality public lands to support year-round outdoor activities.

Building on the confidence of past successes, we are committed to bringing our collective efforts to a new level that provides an active living anchor for revitalization of Downstate Illinois.

We need to take regional, cooperative approaches to building the destination we need-not just for tourism but for remote workers, young families, retirees and business and service providers in the outdoor industry.

Twenty First Century communities and regions don’t just create jobs, growth and revenue – they boost livability. Over the past 15 months we have been committed to creating a regional consortium to do that.

Working together with our Byway Mayors, land managers - as well as local, state, and federal leaders-we are creating the framework, identifying activation projects and support needed for why this region and our National Scenic Byway corridor can be an anchor for downstate revitalization.

Early in 2019, a round-table discussion involving regional attraction managers and public land managers was held to discuss opportunities for strengthening the region’s outdoor recreation economy. The needs and opportunities of key asset managers were discussed and interest in collaboration was validated.

Our Scenic Byway Corridor Management Plan, completed in 2007, is now over 13 years old. An update of the plan to account for new attractions is in order. Even more importantly, a timely update of the plan should include a robust activation strategy that identifies and prioritizes a list of catalytic activation projects that embrace the Mississippi River and outdoor recreation and preservation. The plan should strengthen our brand as an outdoor recreation destination, but also establishes Alton as a regional innovation center and hub that emerges as a preferred relocation destination.

We can not be satisfied with the destination we have. Its time to finish the work of building the destination we need and want to share with others.

The value of this effort will involve multiple communities and counties and will reveal a consolidated destination platform for regional marketing and opportunity.

During 2020, one-on-one interviews were conducted with area public land managers and attraction managers to assess evolving needs and opportunities and to identify specific projects/programs that could contribute to advancement of our regional outdoor destination brand.

During the Summer of 2021 an initial outdoor recreation and livability working group was convened involving community leaders, public land managers, recreational practitioners, and capacity building organizations who agree a regional focus and shared collective effort is central to building the destination we want and a destination we can sustain.

“Becoming a gateway and regional hub for outdoor recreation is key to Alton’s continued growth and economic health - I am excited to work with mayors along the byway to embrace transformational change for our region and state of Illinois.” - David Goins, Mayor, City of Alton

Projected Impact (Economic Development & Livability)

Our Great Rivers National Scenic Byway Region communities have a timely opportunity to pursue a focus on outdoor recreation-based economic development for continued economic relevance and brand the region as a compelling active living destination and exciting life choice for millennial talent, retirees, young families, and small businesses.

The overall effort should include seeking new approaches to public lands access, emphasizing outdoor commerce and outdoor workforce development strategies, and working to incubate and accelerate outdoor recreation business in the downstate region. These activation strategies can help our Meeting of the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway region establish new outdoor nature-based tourism and destination community strategies that help diversify local economies and build a vibrancy into community life.

Placemaking to create vibrant town centers will further power up the success of this economic diversification strategy. Creating access to active living through the development of nearby facilities and programs can also help rural communities improve public health outcomes for residents.

"Grafton is perfectly situated at the confluence of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers to be a key town center as an outdoor recreation destination. We are committed to working on these strategies and making them a reality." Mike Morrow, Mayor, City of Grafton

Job Creation/Retention

The outdoor recreation industry is a powerful economic sector in today’s national economy. The Outdoor Industry Association recently estimated that its overall national impact was nearly $900 billion. In Illinois, the outdoor industry drives $28 billion in economic impacts. Nationally, the outdoor industry is larger than the pharmaceutical, oil, gas, and automobile industries. These numbers underlie the reason why so many communities today are using outdoor recreation-based livability strategies to remain relevant and help diversify their economies.

"It all begins with the recognition of the advantage we too often take for granted: thousands of acres of public accessible lands along one of the most iconic rivers in the world-the Mississippi--at the place where two other great American rivers come together-the Illinois and the Missouri." Cory M. Jobe, President/CEO Great Rivers & Routes Tourism Bureau