Since planning for Illinois’ yearlong 200th birthday celebration began in 2016, there has been one clear goal. “We wanted to reach all Illinois residents around the state and remind them why they are proud to be from Illinois,” says Stuart Layne, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Illinois Bicentennial.
Layne often hears from residents that they want to see the Bicentennial help change the conversation about Illinois, he says. “[The Commission’s] mission is to remind people of the great contributions this state has made, and to look forward and to invest in the next 200 years,” Layne says.
To achieve those aims, the Bicentennial Commission decided on “Born, Built, Grown” as the theme, highlighting the people, places and events in Illinois that have contributed to the history of the United States and the world.
“As we look at the contributions that Illinois has made to society, they invariably were born, built or grown here,” Layne says. “Reminding people how great the state is—and can be— highlights how technological innovations that came before us can play a big part in how the state goes forward.”
The commission also developed the hashtag #IllinoisProud and invited residents to submit videos explaining what makes them proud to live in the state. A selection of these videos was featured in a daily countdown to the start of the Bicentennial festivities on Dec. 3, 2017.
Since then, the commission has unveiled several new initiatives, including providing Bicentennial curricular educational resources to teachers. A new exhibit at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum highlighting four American presidents with Illinois ties (Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama) has also been unveiled.
Two main construction projects were completed this summer as part of the Bicentennial. The Illinois Executive Mansion reopened in July following an extensive renovation that addressed decades of deterioration. The Bicentennial Plaza, a pedestrian walkway that connects the Lincoln Home National Historic Site to the Executive Mansion and the State Capitol, opened on Aug. 26, the 200th anniversary of the date the state’s first constitution was signed.
The Bicentennial Plaza was built in partnership with Illinois REALTORS. The Aug. 26 dedication of the plaza took place after a Route 66 motorcycle ride led by Governor Bruce Rauner.
Also on Aug. 26, residents enjoyed a daylong celebration at the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Community Center in East St. Louis.
In addition to investing in capital projects, the Bicentennial Committee also prioritized funding STEM (science, technology, engingeering and math) educational opportunities, Layne says.
The Bicentennial STEM Fusion Campaign has organized private funding to support STEM educational programming in 25 Illinois elementary and middle schools selected for the program. The curriculum, offered through Illinois Math and Science Academy’s Fusion Program, combines STEM student enrichment and professional development to inspire students to pursue careers in technology, education, business and medicine.
“This award is a real investment in the future for these fourth through eighth graders to become the next innovators,” Layne says.
Illinois residents can look for a Bicentennial twist on celebrations this fall at the Mexican Independence Day, Columbus Day and Thanksgiving Day parades in Chicago, as well as other events that will be posted on the Bicentennial’s website. The birthday celebration will come to a close at a gala party at the United Center on Dec. 3.
ILM+E: What attracted you to this position?
LP: I have worked for 30 years in government and politics. A large part of my work has been organizing political events and fundraisers, like dinners, receptions or cocktail parties. This position was incredibly appealing because of the variety of events and programs with the Bicentennial.
ILM+E: Which Bicentennial project are you most proud of?
LP: I was fortunate enough to work on the Illinois Bicentennial Craft Beer Competition from start to finish. I started out knowing nothing about craft beer and managed to pull together a whole competition for it. Then we took the winner of the craft beer competition and helped him bring the beer to market. Now the Bicentennial beer is in liquor stores around the state, and it’s like my baby.
ILM+E: What skills have been important to this role?
LP: Organization and attention to detail. No matter what I’ve done or what I do, I keep an eye out for the small things. Whether it’s a sponsor fulfillment, following up with an individual who has been helpful with an event or preplanning as far in advance as possible, those are things that I’ve done concurrently through all my years with doing events that are helpful no matter what kind of an event you’re doing.
ILM+E: What have been some of the biggest challenges for your team?
LP: There are so many great ideas that have come to us, and we have to focus on a core group of things to do them well. We try to make sure that what we’re doing fits within our theme of #IllinoisProud and “Born, Built Grown.” Another challenge is time and resources [all Bicentennial programs are privately funded]. In addition to asking if the project fits with the overall Bicentennial theme, we need to ask, “Can we really accomplish this to the extent that we want to?”
ILM+E: What has been key to your team’s success?
LP: We have partnered with great organizations and state agencies that want to be involved in the Bicentennial. That has been incredibly helpful, because our partners have been able to bring resources and people who are enthusiastic about our mission.
ILM+E: What have you learned working on this project?
LP: To always be prepared, and you can always do something better. Also, trust your instincts. If [they’re telling you] something is a good idea or a bad idea, go with it.
ILM+E: What advice would you have for a planner taking on a statewide celebration of this magnitude?
LP: It’s important to be familiar with the state and the people. Time is also a great friend; we could have used a little more. Also, have a solid plan for fundraising and marketing. Look at your state and figure out what your message should be. Things more easily fall into place when you have an overall vision.
SAVE THE DATE: BICENTENNIAL EVENTS
WHAT: “From Illinois to the White House: Lincoln, Grant, Reagan, Obama” exhibit
WHERE: Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, Springfoe;d
WHEN: Through Dec. 30
WHAT: Prairie Heritage Bike Ride
WHERE: Springfield, Lincoln, Bloomington, Champaign, Decatur
WHEN: Sept. 8-14
WHAT: Bicentennial Birthday Party
WHERE: United Center, 1901 W. Madison St., Chicago
WHEN: Dec. 3, 6–9:30 p.m.
For a complete list of Bicentennial events, visit illinois200.com