One of the most visited tourist attractions in the state is now without a souvenir shop and a food vendor.
The New Salem Lincoln League, a volunteer organization, ended its contractual relationship on April 30 with Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site, which is operated by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR).
New Salem is a reconstruction of the village where Abraham Lincoln spent part of his early adulthood. It is about 20 miles northwest of Springfield.
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A procurement bid by IDNR that went out in January would have put the Lincoln League “in a precarious financial situation,” said its president, Edie Sternberg.
No vendor has stepped forward, Sternberg said, leaving the site’s 320,000 annual visitors without food or drinks or mementos of their visit.
The Lincoln League had operated a souvenir and book shop and the Museum Store during peak tourism season — from May to the end of October — for just over 30 years. It also once handled New Salem’s food service.
“It’s a very sad time for all of us, more so for those who spent so many years doing that,” Sternberg said.
In addition to paying $8,400 in rent annually to IDNR plus utilities and insurance, the Lincoln League would have been paying 5% in total sales to the agency.
Under its previous five-year contract, it had been paying 3% to IDNR, said Al Grosboll, the Lincoln League’s immediate past president.
“We told (IDNR beforehand) that 3% was not workable,” Grosboll said.
The contract didn’t allow for any payment adjustments, he noted, if the COVID-19 pandemic persisted or if there were some other downward turns in visitors to the park.
The winner of the bid also would have been straddled, he said, with maintaining, cleaning and supplying bathrooms the state built on the north side of the Railsplitter building right across from the Visitors Center near the park’s entrance.
Grosboll, who has been with the Lincoln League since its founding 41 years ago, said the non-profit organization was on uneven footing with for-profit groups.
“One of the crazy things is that even if you’re a non-profit group that’s dedicated to a particular site, the state can’t simply negotiate with you,” he said. “They believe they’re required to bid it out so that the non-profit is in competition with for-profit. The for-profit takes its profit and (goes) home. We take any profit and invest it back into New Salem.”
Jayette Bolinski, communications director for the IDNR, said the agency appreciates the support the Lincoln League has given the site through the years.
“(The Lincoln League continues) to be a valued partner,” Bolinski said. “While IDNR understands the frustration that long-time and would-be vendors might feel with the state’s procurement process, these rules exist to ensure bidders and Illinois taxpayers get a fair deal.”
Over the last four decades, the Lincoln League has raised over $1 million for New Salem, Grosboll said.
He expected it to raise around $25,000 this year.
“Anytime you go to New Salem for any type of event, like the Candlelight tour or old-time music, we pay for that, the supplies and materials,” Grosboll said. “We’ve paid for interns from Illinois College. We’ve helped with buying a new sound board for (Theatre in the Park).”
When the state hit the budget skid several years ago, the Lincoln League stepped in to supply New Salem with 10,000 brochures, he recalled.
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Lincoln lived and worked in New Salem, about three miles from Petersburg, from 1831 to 1837, when he moved to Springfield. Shortly afterward, the village was abandoned.
It was reconstructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps program in the 1930s and 40s. The village features 23 historically furnished buildings, including several homes, stores and tradesmen’s shops.
The historic site and campground remain open seven days a week. A new hands-on children’s area and demonstration space has opened in the museum store.
Bolinski said Theatre in the Park will continue to operate concessions during its performances.
Sternberg said the board has had “some ideas” about continued fundraising, though most of its efforts have been put into closing the operation.
Sternberg said some of the Lincoln League’s inventory has gone to other non-profits around the state which support historic sites and Petersburg area vendors.
A final sale will be held for the public at the Railsplitter Shop from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday.
Contact Steven Spearie: 217-622-1788, [email protected], twitter.com/@StevenSpearie.