They've got us surrounded. Really. Almost every major route into Peoria is undergoing some form of roadwork. Bridge painting. Patch work. Lane widening. You name it, and it's being done to area roads.

We're not complaining. We're well aware that well-designed, functioning roads are important to Caterpillar, and hence to thousands of people in central Illinois.

Not only does the Fortune 100 company that calls Peoria home benefit-but dozens of area suppliers do as well. Let's face it, we all stand to gain when that company is doing well. The yellow machines that dot roadsides wherever construction work is going on may not be all Cat machines-but they represent the lion's share. And that's good for Peoria.

Also, we realize that the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) has only a limited length of time in which to do repair work or upgrades to our roads. It would make the most sense to start some work in the spring (based on bids received during the winter months)-but they often don't know whether funds will be available (the timing of legislation is usually pretty far down on lawmakers' priority list when they approve funds). So IDOT gets the work done when they can.

It's an annual occurrence. In addition, we know there will be some major roadwork-altering the face of I-74 through downtown-beginning in 2002 and lasting several years. We're certain IDOT will do its best to keep traffic moving during that time. But, let's face it, the work that's planned is going to cause major disruptions for a long time. And it will begin about the time that our riverfront development is finished-when we'll be counting heavily on visitors from outside the community to spend both time and money here.

It's important to realize-though highway repairs eventually mean better roads which bring more tourists to our area-those same repairs, while they're in progress, make it tougher to get to Peoria. They might even upset out-of-towners enough that they'll decide not to return.

Is the community between a rock and a hard place? Sort of.

Here's the dilemma: we know IDOT needs to repair roads to bring tourists to town. We know out-of-towners are becoming increasingly important to Peoria-to patronize riverfront development, shop, go to concerts and ball games and much more. We know IDOT has a limited time to do the work-so they often have many projects going on at once. Finally, we also know road construction upsets motorists-sometimesculminating into what might be called "road rage"-enough to keep folks away permanently.

So what should we do?

Be up front about it. Plan around it. Find out what projects IDOT has on the drawing board for the months ahead-then publicize the routes out-of-towners should use. Put a note on the Internet home page of the Peoria Convention & Visitors Bureau. Send out news releases to media around the region on a regular basis. Put up signs at strategic points that direct motorists to the best, uninhibited routes.

It's encouraging to know discussions are taking place among downtown businesses and organizations such as GP Transit. They are considering shuttle service between Peoria and Morton's Caterpillar plants. Major employers are considering staggering their shifts, so not everyone needs to be at their work by 7 a.m. And PACVB Executive Director Greg Edwards said they are already discussing ways to communicate about the construction. They will include a map with the Visitors Guide and explain the construction and alternative routes.

I suggest we learn to just laugh about it. Put a smile in the advertising or on the signs. Let motorists know it's not getting us down, and that we hope it won't get them down either.

It's important to make road repairs one of the cornerstones of this community's marketing efforts. Sure, we need to let people know about Peoria and the attractions that await them here. But that doesn't do us much good if they can't get here-or they get frustrated trying to get here. So recognize that the roadwork is going to happen-and plan for it. Let people know that we welcome it, that it will eventually mean better things for our community and then let them know the best routes to find their way here. IBI