Visitor Center closure is wrong-headed, lacks heart

Opinion: Columns

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By John Putnam

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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.

Reader Comments

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Christine Vernon  

Posted: October 26th, 2018 12:30 PM

I agree completely Christopher Goode about the idea of the size needed for a Visitor's Center. A small welcoming center the size of a large closet, and the right informed person, could function help with maps, directions and needed resoures. It might have been great to have income from sales for the existing Vistor's Center, but why compete with the FLW Home and Studio's gift shop? I was just there last week to buy note cards to send thank you notes, keeping my $$ local. Surely, the new building under construction at the Lytton's site still has time to provide for such a station in close proximity to the southeast corner of Austin Gardens, the perfect place to sit on a bench and look at a map.

Christopher Goode  

Posted: October 26th, 2018 10:48 AM

I think there should be a physical visitor center in Oak Park but it doesn't need to be big and it doesn't need to have much, if anything, for sale. The FLLW Home and Studio has a lot of stuff for sale for both tourists and locals that is a match for much of what the visitor center had. The old garage location and size was just about right, centrally located and near where many parked to walk around town. Something like that on a smaller scale than the last one on Lake Street is needed to help orient folks and offer suggestions for what to do, where to go first, etc. and to house information and pamphlets of things to do in the area. I know phones might be able to do some of that, but having a real live person to help is much more friendly, personal, and a better experience than playing with your phone. I get that $100,000 per year in losses to run such a place is unsustainable, but think there may be a way to offer a more personal visitor service at a more sustainable cost.

Christine Vernon  

Posted: October 26th, 2018 9:40 AM

Great point, such a good idea, Maureen. This is the problem for Oak Park when the Village bargains from a position of weakness with developers. For all that is given and allowed, all the consessions given, for developers, there should be some accommodation and consideration for Oak Park. I wonder why our leaders have not yet figured that out.

Kline Maureen  

Posted: October 24th, 2018 6:18 PM

the Visitors Center for many years occupied a small storefront space near the stairway in the parking garage on Forest Ave. where Vantage now sits - - it is a real shame that for all the taxpayer money that was given for that project that there was no insistence that a small space be set aside for a new visitor center. The current space is quite large and not as centrally located to the tourist sites as the former location..

Dori Bernstein  

Posted: October 24th, 2018 4:31 PM

It is a shame that just as the Village is spending so much money on Lake Street they take away the Visitor Center. Tourists and residents will suffer without this resource.

Melanie Weiss from Oak Park  

Posted: October 24th, 2018 4:01 PM

I too am very disappointed and rather embarrased that DTOP will not have a presence for people who need advice, directions, suggestions...and I no longer will have a place to buy my FLW and other gifts to bring to hosts when I travel. It is a great resource and I know every day dozens of tourists are helped by the store and volunteers who generously donate their time. It says a lot about OP to have this resources but what does it say when we close it? I think it's a poor decision.

Valerie Ursini from Oak Park  

Posted: October 23rd, 2018 5:49 PM

I agree, tourists need a physical location where they can get oriented, etc. Not everyone is tech-savvy. I hope this decision is reconsidered!

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