Crain’s Chicago Business: Pullman National Monument faces a long haul ahead

“After years of dreaming and planning, the Pullman National Monument gets its official grand opening next week, but much more work awaits backers positioning the historic site as a big tourist draw and economic development engine for its Southeast Side neighborhood.

“Pullman’s annual visits are projected to climb initially to 200,000 to 300,000 compared with the current pace of 50,000 to 60,000 as a result of the unveiling of a permanent visitor center, augmented by the draw of a National Park Service affiliation and a tourism trend rooted in nostalgia for America’s bygone industrial age.

“The homage to the factory town that made Pullman rail cars is lacking something, though: the sleeping cars themselves. None will be on display except three versions in private hands parked at Metra’s 111th Street station for touring on opening weekend, Sept. 4 and 5. When they move on down the line, Pullman will be left with the reality that its further development as a tourist attraction is years and tens of millions of dollars away.

“About $35 million has been committed so far to convert Pullman’s administration building and clock tower into the visitor center. A logical next step is restoring the Hotel Florence, which opened in 1881 to host railroad executives and other Pullman customers, as an on-site lodging option.

“Pullman can be portrayed as the birthplace of the modern labor movement and Labor Day itself, growing out of turmoil of the Pullman strike of 1894. Its civil rights origin story starts with the employment of African American porters and their role in spreading the circulation of the Chicago Defender to the segregated South, a catalyst for the Great Migration and its transformation of northern cities like Chicago. Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln, ran the Pullman Palace Car after George Pullman’s death. Michelle Obama’s grandfather was a Pullman porter.

“These so-called heritage visitors are valued more than typical vacationers. ‘They stay longer and spend more money per day and visit more places than tourists in general,’ says Donovan Rypkema, principal at PlaceEconomics, a Washington, D.C., consultant. About 60 percent of what they spend is related to lodging, he says.

“That’s why says David Doig, president of the nonprofit Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives, and other backers are keen to revive the Hotel Florence, recruit other hotel operators and expand bed-and-breakfast options in the area. He estimates that it will be at least three or four years before the hotel can reopen, probably with 30 to 40 rooms, under a contemplated agreement similar to the state’s at the Starved Rock Lodge and Conference Center in the downstate park.

“The Florence was saved from the wrecking ball in 1975 by the Historic Pullman Foundation. Since 1991 its title has been held by the state, most recently by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, which has focused over the last four years on remediation and rehabilitation of the factory grounds, a state historic site.

“According to the agency, both the North Wing structure adjacent to the visitor’s center and the Rear Erector Shop, an arson victim in 1998, require ‘extensive rehabilitation’ (including a new roof, Doig says). ‘Future projects at the site are subject to availability of future appropriations,’ the department notes.

“The National Park Service has provided $12 million, plus another $10 million from its privately supported foundation, and the state has added $13 million to $14 million, Doig says. Alderman Anthony Beale would like the city to step up, too. ‘It doesn’t have to be a city project to get city support. That’s the only way to make this work. Everybody has to jump in,’ he says.” (Strahler, Crain’s Chicago Business, 8/27/21)

Read the full story at Crain’s Chicago Business.

Pullman National Monument faces a long haul ahead; Even after its grand opening next week, much more work awaits backers positioning the historic site as a big tourist draw and economic engine, Steven R. Strahler, Crain’s Chicago Business, 8/27/21


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