We do that here. This tag-line in a recent television campaign made a simple, straightforward statement about Canton, Illinois: that this small, rural community has all of the amenities that make much larger cities or metropolitan areas attractive. A great school system, a hospital and two clinics, exceptional parks, excellent quality of life, and a growing economic base all combine to make it an outstanding place to raise a family or own a business.
Following closely on this successful effort to brand the community, the city’s economic development organization is now setting its sights on encouraging visitors to make Canton a tourist destination. And why not? Unlike many small communities that have withered during the past two years of economic meltdown, Canton has thrived—in part because the city has been willing to reinvent its vision of the future. Surrounded by a wealth of natural beauty, and conveniently located within minutes of numerous attractions, the potential to broaden Canton’s revenue base through tourism has become a new focus.
Rising From the Ashes, Literally
Canton’s history has long been associated with farm implement manufacturing. In 1860, William Parlin and William Orendorff became partners in the P&O Plow Works, which was later purchased in 1919 by International Harvester. IH remained Canton’s largest employer until 1983, when the massive facility closed its doors. The site remained empty and idle until August 6, 1997, when virtually the entire plant burned to the ground in an arson fire that lasted for three days. The devastation, both physical and emotional, left Canton reeling for decades.
In 2008, a letter sent to former Canton native Bill Cook, founder of the largest privately owned medical device manufacturer in the world, created a spark that has fanned an entirely different type of fire within the community. (Editor’s note: Cook passed away on April 15, 2011 at the age of 80.) Cook, an ardent supporter of historic preservation, purchased the Randolph Building, a once-beautiful structure that anchors the southeast corner of Canton’s downtown square, as well as the smaller building next to it. With the stunning renovation of both properties creating momentum, the Spoon River Partnership for Economic Development (SRPED) aggressively sought ways to achieve similar success with other fading structures in the downtown business district. In the past 18 months, Canton’s downtown square has undergone a startling renaissance, the result of a $400,000 façade improvement grant from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, and the strong support of city government, downtown business owners and the local Canton Main Street organization.
Once painfully worn and lifeless, the downtown area is now the heart of the city, hosting open-air markets, classic car shows, musical performances and holiday celebrations that literally draw thousands of visitors. Craft and antique stores, women’s clothing boutiques, a beautifully restored functioning soda fountain and candy store are among the many businesses that surround Jones Park, a lovely historic space located in the center of the downtown square, complete with a gazebo. Beautiful, larger-than-life murals adorn the sides of Fulton Square, a downtown shopping center. A variety of local restaurants appeal to hungry visitors’ appetites, from home-style fare to genuine fine dining.
Building on the Momentum
Cook has purchased and restored other properties, and opened a medical device manufacturing plant on the old International Harvester site. CFC Properties, Cook’s property management and historic preservation arm, is currently constructing a 32-room boutique hotel in the heart of downtown, which is scheduled to open this September. New businesses have filled key renovated retail space, and Canton has benefited from economic stimulus projects that have greatly improved the state roads leading to and from Canton. All of these positive changes and the energy and hope that have been generated are striking achievements in an economic climate that has fostered uncertainty and fear. The City of Canton and the SRPED are determined to capitalize on that success by inviting visitors to come see for themselves how unique the town and its surrounding areas really are. As part of that effort, the City approved funds in 2009 to hire a marketing and tourism coordinator to put Canton on the tourism “map.”
The SRPED has also created an ad hoc committee drawn from various—and sometimes unexpected—portions of the community to create a cohesive message, including business owners, city aldermen, bankers, pastors, marketing directors and others. The group is purposely diverse, to gain different perspectives and insight, with the goal of making tourism a viable portion of Canton’s economy. It has not been easy, nor is the committee’s work complete. It’s a work in progress that will be an ongoing effort by the group, whose makeup will most likely shift and change as new challenges are addressed.
Celebrate your Assets
The City of Canton uses an official logo with the phrase, “City Living Among Nature’s Beauty,” on its business cards and stationery, reflecting a fairly accurate assessment of Canton’s past appeal. The city is tucked among reclaimed lakes and abundant farmland in west central Illinois, just 35 miles southwest of Peoria. Canton has been named a Governor’s Hometown award winner, an All-America City finalist, is a designated Illinois Main Street community and a gateway community for the Illinois River Road National Scenic Byway.
Lakeland Park, on the northern edge of town, offers excellent fishing, paddleboats, miles of hiking and biking trails, and the chance to get face to face with native waterfowl. Canton Lake, to the east, offers camping, water sports, fishing and enough space to go sailing. Canton hosts outdoorsmen from all over the country each fall, who come to take advantage of some of the best deer, goose and duck hunting available in the U.S. For the nature lover, Canton is only a short drive from such attractions as Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge and Banner Marsh State Fish & Wildlife Area. Dickson Mounds, located between Canton and Havana, is one of the largest on-site archeological museums in the country, uncovering 12,000 years of American Indian heritage. All these amenities and sites with appeal to potential tourists form an excellent base upon which to build a new facet of Canton’s economy.
But the city and the SRPED hope to expand upon the allure of nature and history by positioning the city itself to become an attraction. With the right mix of beautiful historic buildings, retail stores, entertainment and recreation, Canton stands poised to extend a warm welcome to visitors from within the state, or across the nation. iBi