Tourism brought $1.2 billion to Lake County in 2013

Though Six Flags Great America isn’t known for tossing around specific daily or seasonal attendance figures, Park President Hank Salemi offered a hint this week at how many people it has drawn to Gurnee since it opened in May 1976.

“Just to put it in perspective for you, we are going to hit just about 106 million visitors since this park opened,” Salemi said on Monday, July 28, while hosting officials from the Illinois Office of Tourism. “We’re really, really proud of that. A lot of those visitors come in from a 50-mile [or] 100-mile radius, but a lot of them don’t. In fact, about 30 percent of our visitors come from outside of that 100-mile radius.”

Salemi was among those comparing Great America to an engine that drives tourism spending in Lake County, and the state officials were on hand to unveil the county’s tourism-related revenue for 2013: $1.2 billion, up 1.6 percent from 2012.

Standing in the shadow of Goliath, the park’s wooden roller coaster that opened in June, Maureen Riedy, president of the Lake County Visitors and Convention Bureau, said Great America sets the tone for regional tourism.

“We have over 60 hotels in Lake County, we have tremendous attractions, but we are very, very fortunate to be the home here of a major destination-driver, and that’s Six Flags Great America,” Riedy said. “I mean, it really drives millions of visitors every year and has a huge impact on the county.”

Gurnee Mayor Kristina Kovarik picked up on the chance to tout her community’s role in generating regional tourism dollars, saying Great America, Gurnee Mills and KeyLime Cove form a trio of attractions that combine top draw visitors year-round.

“Gurnee grew up when tourism came to town in 1976, [and] it’s been fueling our local economy ever since,” Kovarik said. “We almost don’t even have seasonality anymore in Gurnee when we do our forecasting.

“The height of the season, obviously, is when Six Flags is open, and then we roll right into back-to-school and the holiday season with Gurnee Mills, and then we kind of roll into spring break with KeyLime Cove.”

Kovarik added that 60 percent of the village’s sales tax and food-and-beverage tax is generated from non-Gurnee zip codes. Those two funds were budgeted at $16.58 million and $1.69 million, respectively, for the 2013-14 fiscal year.

“That’s 60 percent of the village’s budget driven by out-of-towners, people from a 100-mile radius and probably even more,” said Kovarik, “and that funds public services, public safety, things that are very important to visitors.”

Monday’s event at Great America drew elected officials and chamber-of-commerce representatives from around the county, and it was the start of a weeklong road trip that Enjoy Illinois plans to make this week to reveal 2013 tourism figures.

“Ten people, one bus, five days, 17 stops and this is the first,” said Jen Hoelzle, director of Illinois Office of Tourism, who told the crowd that, statewide, a record, 105.7 million domestic and international visitors spent $34.6 billion in 2013. “So this is a big industry, (and) these numbers do not happen by magic. They happen because of the hard work that you do.”

Hoelzle added that “it is no surprise that Lake County is one of the top three counties in visitors and revenue,” placing it with Cook ($21.1 billion) and DuPage ($2.3 billion).

The figures released on Monday also noted that Lake County features 10,190 tourism-related jobs, and Salemi said 4,300 of those are seasonal hires at Great America — making it the state’s largest minimum-wage employer.

“You’re talking about a huge economic tourism engine that this park is able to provide,” he said, “helping not only us here with the tax dollars [and] admissions revenue that is generated here at the park, but also the area hotels, restaurants and other businesses here in Lake County that we really feel benefit from the amount of people that come to Great America.”

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