Sadly, the Oak Park Visitor Center will be closed in late December by the new manager of Visit Oak Park after it has provided decades of service to the community and to our out of town friends.
The reason given on the press release is “changes necessary to meet the competitive demands of the tourism marketplace” and “by focusing our resources on advertising and marketing, we are able to inspire more travelers to visit the world-class attractions and local gems that make the Oak Park area such an amazing destination.”
I feel this is a wrong-headed decision. A physical location, the Visitor Center, with helpful humans and racks of information, is a more potent advertisement for Oak Park than just marketing. If you want to improve or increase marketing, that’s good, but it’s only half of what you need.
The Visitor Center provides a place to go for tourists to get oriented, find out where things are, where to eat, bathrooms, heat in winter and AC in summer. It provides a human face to Oak Park and River Forest, that Oak Park spirit of friendliness and caring and, yes, bathrooms. Many of these tourists have limited English and someone helping through the map and what’s available and when makes their visit more memorable. They also have a place they can get Oak Park, FLW, and Chicago souvenirs. If we lost the Visitor Center I think the reviews online for Oak Park as a destination would suffer.
I understand that they feel an improved website that works better with smartphones and additional marketing will be a sufficient replacement for that personal, physical location. I don’t agree.
How many of you when you decided to move to the area went to the Visitor Center to get information? How many of you shop there to get local gifts for your remote friends? How many of you have had the volunteers fill out your Shoppers Rewards receipts? How many of you go there with out-of-town friends to get information?
We should listen to the voice of all those tourists who have been helped personally by the Visitor Center. I don’t think the management of Visit Oak Park was listening to any of those voices. I don’t believe the manager who made the decision to close the Visitor Center ever spent any time there and never understood the services provided. I am sure that if he had, he would have made a different decision.
I personally have volunteered there for 11 years and have helped hundreds if not thousands of travelers, foreign and domestic, with finding out where to go in town, what’s open and where to eat, many with limited language skills.
I personally think the decision to close the Visitor Center and replace it with marketing is wrong-headed and lacks heart. The head of that office, Eric Wagner, eric@visitoakpark, should hear from the community about that decision.
John Putnam is a longtime Oak Park resident and Visitor Center volunteer.