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The Malarkey About Sycamore's Tourism Program

by Mac McIntyre

Sycamore resident, Martha Wetzel, has not been shy about making her opinion known regarding the city's tourism program.  Every community in America needs a Martha Wetzel.  She participates in the issues facing her community. She gets involved.  She speaks her mind.

Martha is no spring chicken. But when there is an issue she feels strongly about she will outwork anyone I know.  Case in point:  When the Sycamore Library Board was attempting to ramrod through an enormous tax increase to offset poor decisions made in their expansion efforts, Martha walked door-to-door through snow drifts and ice to spearhead a grassroots opposition effort.

Martha feels strongly about Sycamore's tourism program. She thinks its malarkey and a waste of her tax dollars. She felt so strongly about it that she resigned from the Sycamore City Council at least in part in protest to their approval to install historic markers on the lawns of homes in the historic district.

Martha and I disagree on this one.  We also seem to differ in our recollections of certain events and facts pertaining to the tourism program.

I believe I played an instrumental role in starting Sycamore's tourism program. It was the brainchild of former mayor Jim Edwards. Because of its potential to promote Sycamore and her willingness to help in any way she could, Sycamore Chamber Executive Director, Tami Armstrong lent her support to the program. I have been involved, as a volunteer, in tourism in Illinois since the early 1980s.  I am a believer in its effectiveness.  I was appointed as the President of the newly formed Sycamore Tourism Committee as which I served for two years -- as a volunteer.

A successful tourism program works when a community devotes a portion of their local share of hotel/motel tax collected from visitors towards a budget for marketing and developing its tourism resources.  Visitors pay for the program.  Residents don't.  Collateral material produced to promote the area can serve economic development purposes as well since local tourism resources are often also the quality of life elements of a community.

I saw tourism as a tool not a solution.  I saw it as a tool to revive and validate the efforts of former mayor Red Johnson, Steve Bigolin, Dr. and Mrs. Ovitz, Nancy Beasley and others who, in 1975, successfully worked hard to get the old central district of Sycamore listed on the National Registry of Historic Places -- as a historic district.  Despite their success in getting the district listed their effort was fading in memory and purpose in preservation.  Registry in the NHL is also only a tool.  In reality, the difference between an old building and a historic site is that one costs money, the other generates it.  Tourism is the tool to use to turn an old building into a historic site.

Martha wants proof that each home that has a pedestal is indeed historic.  The National Park Service and the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency deemed the central district of Sycamore to be historic due to its high concentration of turn-of-the-century homes and the unique array architectural styles that such a concentration of homes provides.  

Since the committee did not want to infringe upon the rights of homeowners in the district, only those turn-of-the-century homes (or prior) whose owners volunteered for the program were included.  Not every homeowner agreed to have a pedestal installed on their lawn.  Most did.

I also saw tourism as a tool to revive Sycamore's heritage and role in the Underground Railroad.  This era in time, to me, was the beginning of a long and unfinished journey in the progress of the human race towards the realization that we are all equal, as children, in the eyes of God.

Sycamore's white abolitionists' roles in the Underground Railroad are fairly well documented.  But its documentation of African American roles are scarce-to-non-existent. 

There is a museum-of-sorts within the African American community of Sycamore.  White Americans are not encouraged to visit it.  I suspect one reason for this could be explained in this turn-of-the-century front page headline in the then Sycamore Republican:  "There Will Be No New Coons in Sycamore."

Despite Sycamore's role in the Underground Railroad, blacks were not a welcome "addition" to Anaconda Wire and Cable moving into town.  That suggests to me that the whole story is not being told and that the above mentioned journey is indeed incomplete. 

I was hopeful that tourism would act as a catalyst in getting the entire story told.  Perhaps it might even bring an entire community together.  So I am an idealist.

In selling the tourism program to the Sycamore City Council I gained a deeper appreciation for people like Martha Wetzel who participates and gets involved.  I was publicly chastised by the Daily Chronicle's editorial board for "misleading" Sycamore into believing it could get grant money from the State since Sycamore had no tourism program in place.  At my time and expense I wrote the grant application, drove to Springfield on several occasions for the necessary relationship building, and successfully obtained a $20,000 grant for Sycamore.  

I was also chastised for my efforts to get Sycamore included in the forming National Underground Railroad Trail.  Much of that criticism came from Martha Wetzel.

Martha grew up in one of the homes that may or may not have been used as an Underground Railroad station.  She believes it was not.  So do I.  But the home was once used as the Universalist Church and it is well documented that this church played an active role in the abolitionist movement.  It probably was not a station but even if its members only played a passive role and even if that only helped ONE African American reach freedom then I believe its contribution was significant.  Martha believed I was scamming people about the Underground Railroad.  I thought I was volunteering my time to help.

I told the City Council that, if implemented, the tourism program would substantially increase the hotel/motel tax collected.  It did - from about $70,000 for the previous year to more than $100,000 after the program had been in place the following year.  I told them it would increase the local sales tax dollars collected and it did.  I told them it would enable them to better tap the State's tourism grant programs and it did.

Sycamore is going to need to promote itself once the road construction projects are complete.  Tourism is the tool to do that.

With all due respect to Martha Wetzel, the malarkey about Sycamore's tourism program is the misinformation that she is promoting.

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