Get to Know: Kankakee county

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Population: 113,698

Location: Just 50 miles south of Chicago’s city center, Kankakee County is incredibly accessible to visitors from all over the state and surrounding regional areas. “What we love about our location is that we have a highway [Interstate 57] running through the middle of our county so we are an easy commute for people traveling from O’Hare or Midway airports, or downstate,” says Staci Wilken, executive director of Visit Kankakee County, which represents 22 communities, including Bradley, Bourbonnais, Kankakee, Manteno and Momence. The Greater Kankakee Airport also offers air travel opportunities and is a hub of U.S. Air Force Blackhawk Helicopters, which makes it an exciting draw for tourists. There is also a nearby Metra rail with Kankakee’s mustsee train depot that was placed on National Register of Historic Places in 2000.

The Must-Sees: One of the biggest draws for Kankakee County every summer is the annual 7UP Chicago Bears Training Camp, held at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais. “We have 60-70,000 people that come into the area for two to three weeks every summer,” says Wilken, who also says the campus is proud to be the alma mater of Chicago Cubs’ second baseman Ben Zobrist. Other prized attractions include the Merchant Street Art Gallery of Artists with Autism, only one of four museums in the country of its kind, and the Strickler Planetarium, one of three planetariums in the state with revolutionary digital projection. There is also Frank Lloyd Wright’s B. Harley Bradley House, one of the architect’s earliest prairie-style homes. Nature is also bountiful in the county with marquees like the Kankakee River, named a National Water Trail in 2016, and the Perry Farm Park, with 170 acres of woods and prairie with trails and preserved Native American Indian caves to explore. There’s also the Kankakee Sands Eco Region that has the largest concentration of high quality black-oak savannahs surviving in the Midwest and the Haigh Quarry scuba facility, ranked one of the 12 Best Snorkel sites in the U.S. by Yahoo Travel.

Hotels & Conference Centers: In total, Kankakee County has a spread of 900 hotel rooms and 70,000 square feet of meeting space. Two full-service hotels offer dedicated conference space, including the Hilton Garden Inn and Riverstone Conference Center as well as the Quality Inn and Suites. For more unique options, guests can choose two B&Bs in the area, the Riverview Guest House in Kankakee and Wickstrom Manor in Momence. Centennial Chapel on the Olivet Nazarene University campus also offers a 3,000-person auditorium with a beautiful organ backdrop for events, and the equally stunning Majestic Theatre can host up to 5,000. “The newest option will be a Hampton Inn set to open in the spring,” says Wilken.

Restaurants: “It’s said we are known for our barbecue, but we have a lot of great restaurants in the area,” Wilken notes of the 150 options to choose from. That includes BrickStone’s Brewery & Restaurant in Bourbonnais (named to the esteemed Illinois Made tourism list) and the higher-end Rigo’s in downtown Kankakee; both have private dining space. One of the most creative experiences though is reserved for Locavore Farm in Grant Park that has a true farm-to-table experience at a 100-foot handcrafted table. The three-hour dinner, set under the stars, uses all local ingredients.

How the CVB Helps: Visit Kankakee County has won several Excellence in Tourism Awards at the Illinois Governor’s Conference on Travel and Tourism over the years, including Best Sales Collateral and Best Website in 2015 and Best Visitors Publication in 2014 recognized as user-friendly guides for business and leisure travelers. “This year, we are excited to be able to have both a brand-new Visitors Guide and brand-new website that can help to attract small meeting markets,” says Wilken. She and her staff can also help with hotel rates, itineraries, venue selection, welcome services, registration and sight tours, all in an effort to “connect the pieces before a group gets here.” 

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