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Utica traffic soars as parks break summer records

Matthiessen sets all-time mark; Starved Rock hovers at 400,000

Plenty of Americans sit in traffic during their morning commute, but Tiffany Koehler abruptly joined their ranks this summer – and she works in Utica.

Koehler owns Ts Midwest Boutique on Mill Street, the village’s primary business corridor, and the density of traffic on Route 178 has risen sharply this summer.

“Even just trying to get downtown is kind of crazy,” she said.

The explanation is simple. Starved Rock and Matthiessen state parks again broke attendance records. Utica, no stranger to brisk tourism, is awash with unprecedented crowds.

“It’s definitely increased,” agreed Cindy Trench, who manages Clark’s Run Creek Gift and Wine Shop. “It’s always been busy, but since they roped off [Mill] Street, it’s crazy busy.”

Mark Wenzel is co-owner of August Hill Winery. Between concerns about the pandemic and brisk business at his Utica tasting room, Wenzel decided to open his hillside vineyard in rural Peru to visitors (albeit with social distancing) for the first time since he opened in 2002.

“We had no intentions of doing this at the winery,” Wenzel said, “but we’re doing it because of the pandemic and to take the pressure off the tasting room.”

However, none of those interviewed were braced for the preliminary July totals from the two parks. Through July 30, Starved Rock welcomed 391,155 visitors and had an outside chance of finishing the month with 400,000 or more visitors for only the second time in its history.

Matthiessen also reported an eye-popping total. The park had 111,205 visitors through July 30, which not only is a record but the first time the park has crested 100,000 visitors in a one-month span. The return of the 60-acre sunflower field after a one-year hiatus has been a steady attraction at Matthiessen.

It’s good news/bad news for Utica and for the parks. On the plus side, Utica business owners who depend on tourism to make ends meet were glad for the upturn in business after park visits ground to a halt at the peak of the novel coronavirus pandemic (April visits were zero).

The downside is the influx of visitors from across Illinois has coincided with an uptick in COVID-19 cases that, as of Thursday, had Gov. J.B. Pritzker threatening to reinstate tighter infection controls.

Koehler acknowledged that although she’s glad for the increase in foot traffic, she’s had to be doubly vigilant with her customers. She has stood firm on the use of masks and hand sanitizer and has periodically asked shoppers to wait outside to limit the head count inside her boutique.

Pam Grivetti wishes there was a way to manage the foot traffic inside the park – “The litter problem is atrocious” – but the sheer size of the tourist influx may simply be unmanageable.

Grivetti is president of Starved Rock Foundation, and she said the volume and frequency of closures is unprecedented. She long remembered weekend closures because of reaching capacity at Starved Rock, but only in 2020 have closures happened Monday through Friday. Similarly, she drove to Matthiessen the last Sunday in July to see the wildflowers and found the park filled to capacity.

It was 9:25 a.m.

“And that’s Matthiessen, not Starved Rock,” Grivetti said. “It wasn’t even until recently that Matthiessen was even closed. But with the floods we have had in recent years, Starved Rock was closed, and people discovered Matthiessen. Now, everybody locally knows if you want to go to the park you need to be there by 7 a.m. and be out of there by 10 a.m.

“And they are anticipating this is going to continue through the fall, because the schools are going to be closed and people aren’t returning to work.”

If it does continue, Starved Rock and Matthiessen both could topple annual records, which looked like an impossibility after the spring closures wiped out April and suppressed attendance by more than a quarter.

As of Thursday, July 30, Starved Rock was on pace to miss 2 million visitors, but just barely; the projected total is 1.9 million, and that presumes only average attendance the remainder of the year. Matthiessen was on pace for a near-record 430,767.

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