Editor's Note: This article was created by aggregating news articles from Illinois Statehouse News that were written by various Illinois Statehouse News reporters.
SPRINGFIELD — April Stanley thought her days of enjoying an occasional visit to the Shawnee Hills Wine Trails were over — at least until next summer.
“I try to hit the wineries a couple times in the summer,” Stanley said. “I never thought I’d be enjoying one in the middle of January.”
A recent warm winter day had her driving from her home in Carbondale to Blue Sky Vineyards in Makanda.
“It was just so nice out on my friend’s birthday,” Stanley said. “We just wanted to be outside and do something fun.”
Employees at Blue Sky said they are hearing similar stories from other visitors. Brandy Nance, director of marketing at the winery, said this time of year, normally the winery’s off season, has been unusually busy.
“We’re still seeing people coming from Paducah, St. Louis and other parts of Kentucky,” Nance said. “And they’re coming and sitting on the patio, which is unheard of for February.”
Kirk Huettle, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Lincoln, said temperatures averaged 10 degrees warmer than normal during the first week of February. December and January were also warmer than normal.
“The last two months saw above average temps of 7 degrees,” said Huettle said. “So far we haven’t had to issue any winter storm warnings either, just advisories for when we saw an inch or 2 of snow.”
This winter is Illinois’s sixth warmest on record.
The unseasonably warm winter has contributed to an increase in tourism for December and January in Illinois, according to the most recent data from tourism offices statewide.
Warm weather benefits
Statistics from the state Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity show that winter tourism is up in Illinois by an estimated 5 percent. The department determined the increase by comparing the hotel tax revenue in December 2011 with the revenue in December 2010.
Directors from tourism bureaus in southern, central, northern western Illinois also are reporting higher numbers of visitors this season.
Some cities, such as Springfield, monitor the number of tourists differently, since they can count the number of visitors to tourist attractions in their community. Records from Springfield's director of tourism, Kim Rosendahl, show that Springfield saw a 24 percent increase this December over last December.
Visits to the majority of historical sites also were up this December, said Dave Blanchette, spokesman for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, which monitors historical sites and memorials throughout Illinois. Of the 50 operated by his agency, Blanchette said only five didn’t see an increase of visitors.
Outside attractions like the Abraham Lincoln’s New Salem residence saw an increase of nearly 7,000 visitors from December 2010 to this past December.
While many of these sites offer special holiday programs during the winter, Blanchette said the numbers still remain higher than normal for the season.
“This December was extremely mild. And when people don’t have ice and snow to tend with, they want to get out more,” Blanchette said.
These numbers come at a crucial time for historic sites in Illinois. As a whole for 2011, the number of visitors was down from 2 million in 2010 to 1.9 million.
Blanchette said his agency isn’t worried about this dip, and is “optimistic that this upturn in visitors will continue through to 2012.”
Each year Illinois receives roughly $29 billion from tourism.
“When people visit communities where historic sites are, it causes a tremendous economic impact,” said Blanchette. “People are buying gasoline there, they buy food there, they buy souvenirs there. They could even stay overnight in hotels all pushing money into local economies.”
So far, this year’s increase of winter tourism brought the state roughly $2 million for December and January through hotel taxes. The amount doesn’t include any money that tourists may have spent on food, souvenirs, or gasoline. That number won’t be available until June.
Blanchette said small communities with attractions benefit greatly.
“It has a tremendous ripple effect in those communities. The smaller the community the bigger the ripple effect. And in some communities these historic sites are the only economic engine that they might have,” Blanchette said.
— Stephanie Fryer
Cameras in Illinois will soon do what has always been a police officer’s job — issue speeding tickets.
Gov. Pat Quinn on Monday signed legislation that allows Chicago to install speed cameras and ticket speeders in “safety zones” within 660 feet of schools, from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. during school days, and parks an hour before and after they close.
While the legislation affects only Chicago, some worry the practice could spread to other parts of the state.
“This just means more bureaucracy and more money for Chicago to spend. It’s like Big Brother is watching us all over the country,” said state Rep. John Cavaletto, R-Salem, one of 50 members of the House to vote against the measure last November.
Cavaletto said traffic enforcement should remain solely the purview of police officers.
Some legislators who helped write the bill said they would support allowing local governments — besides Chicago — to decide if they want to use speed-enforcement cameras, which they now can do for red-light cameras.
So far, though, local governments haven’t expressed interest in seeing a similar law apply statewide, said Jayde Huebner, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Municipal League, which represents local governments statewide. The league did not take a stance on it.
“I think if municipalities are going to consider this, they’d probably want to see how it works in Chicago first,” Huebner said.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel had been lobbying Quinn for permission to use the cameras for several months, and although the governor’s office apparently heard from more than 100 people opposed to the law, Quinn defended it at a Chicago news conference.
The legislation “came to my desk and I gave it a thorough review, I listened to all of the arguments pro and con,” Quinn said. “I thought safety was the No. 1 consideration.”
The safety zones around schools and parks encompass about 66 percent of the city, according to a Chicago Sun-Times analysis from October.
Legislators who supported the law say it gives the city a new, modern tool to maintain public safety, especially in areas with growing populations.
State Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago, a co-sponsor of the law, said, “There are other cities that have been doing this, and I think their experience suggests that if people would just follow the law, we would have a much safer city.”
But critics of the law, which takes effect in July, say the idea of speed cameras is motivated more by a desire to raise money than to prevent accidents.
State Rep. Patti Bellock, R-Hinsdale, who voted against the bill in the fall, said she didn’t think there was enough of a public debate about the scope of the enforcement.
“If this is was a good idea, then why wouldn’t we do this throughout the state? It seems more like a revenue generator,” she said. “I just think people had the feeling that there were going to be cameras on every single street corner.”
Illinois has enforcement cameras in some construction zones, and eight Illinois counties have red-light camera enforcement.
“There is a need to ensure the safety of children and families,” said state Sen. Martin Sandoval, D-Cicero, whose district includes a growing swath of southwest Chicago.
— Anthony Brino