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One of the Illinois Valley’s best-kept secrets is wedged between Oglesby and Utica and seems to be known only to locals.
That jewel is Matthiessen State Park. Soon after I relocated to the Illinois Valley, colleagues recommended it as a quiet and not less glorious alternative to Starved Rock State Park and their advice was well heeded.
Strolling through Matthiessen on crisp fall days helped me clear my head and I marveled at the fact that I seemed to have the place all to myself.
These days, anyone could have to have it to himself. I just took a gander at the Matthiessen attendance figures and the park’s yearly visits have shrunk to unacceptable levels.
The 2012 attendance totals came in recently and Matthiessen drew a puny 269,000 visitors last year, down 3 percent from the previous year.
On paper, that figure isn’t terrible. It’s only the second time in the past six years that year-over-year attendance has declined. The total also is up, not insubstantially, from 2005, when the total reached a quarter-century low.
But what’s worrisome is that Matthiessen hasn’t rallied back from a precipitous fall in 2004, even as attendance at neighboring Starved Rock State Park has risen to an all-time high.
The explanation is simple: 2004 was when a killer tornado hit nearby Utica. Next year marks a decade since the tornado devastated both Granville and Utica and claimed 10 lives. The recovery has gone so well that it’s getting more and more difficult to find evidence of the storm with the naked eye.
Matthiessen, however, has not joined in the recovery from the area’s worst-ever disaster.
The year before the tornado, Matthiessen drew a near-record 412,163 visitors. Over the next three years, attendance fell off 40 percent.
The monthly totals show an indisputable link between the storm and the decline. Matthiessen actually was enjoying a record April when the tornado struck that month in 2004. Immediately after, Matthiessen attendance plunged six straight months and in 10 of the next 12 months.
Utica business owners reported that sales fell off amid a mistaken belief that Utica had been obliterated. It’s been a slow climb back but the storm damage has been largely eradicated. Starved Rock, too, has posted banner years since the tornado. Not Matthiessen, however. Before the tornado, year attendance averaged 404,000; today the average has shrunk to 274,000.
Put another way, at its peak Matthiessen drew a quarter of Starved Rock’s yearly numbers. Today, Matthiessen draws only an eighth of Starved Rock’s annual crowds.
The park is too beautiful to be attracting such dismal crowds. With Utica and Oglesby both angling to bolster tourism, Matthiessen presents an untapped resource that could generate interest if the park were properly marketed.
Marketing has effectively boosted Starved Rock, which set an attendance record in 2011 and seen 11 monthly records fall in the past nine years. A little publicity and coordinated effort could turn the spotlight on to Starved Rock’s forgotten little sister and yield real results.
The trouble is, whose responsibility is it to pump up Matthiessen?
The park has an Oglesby address but is run by the same office that governs Starved Rock in Utica. One could also make a case for Utica getting involved because the dells area is most directly accessed by Route 178 just south of the village limits.
City officials in Oglesby and Utica should huddle with the Department of Natural Resources and discuss ways to remind folks that Matthiessen, like Utica, wasn’t wiped off the map in 2004.