April 29, 2020
Historic sites all across Illinois have been impacted by the Coronavirus pandemic, as have the organizations that maintain them. Bishop Hill Heritage Association (BHHA), which since 1962 has been charged with preserving and promoting the Colony-era buildings that make up the historic Bishop Hill Colony in western Illinois, has been hit hard. Todd DeDecker, administrator for the BHHA, said the impact has been “devastating” for the historic village, shutting down small businesses and restaurants that rely so heavily on visitors and tourists.
As shelter-in-place orders continue, the BHHA is considering what services and costs it needs to cut to survive until Bishop Hill Colony can once again welcome the public back to the historic sites. DeDecker also wonders if visitors will return in the same numbers as before or if the organization needs to plan for lower revenues and donations. What will a post-pandemic world look like for the community, he wonders?
“Our story is not an uncommon one,” DeDecker said. “Many nonprofit organizations are experiencing the same issues and have the same questions. The answers to some of these questions are beyond our normal experience and training and thus have to be figured out as we go.”
Below, DeDecker shares more insight into how Bishop Hill has been impacted during this unprecedented, difficult time.
LANDMARKS ILLINOIS: Interaction with the public is a major part of the Bishop Hill community. When did Bishop Hill’s historic sites have to close its doors to the public due to the Coronavirus? And what impact has that had?
TODD DeDECKER: When the governor issued the shelter in place order in March is when many of the businesses and museums shut down in Bishop Hill (since many of these businesses are not considered essential). The only businesses that have remain open to the public is the post office and three restaurants that are doing carry out orders.
The impact on Bishop Hill has been devastating. Bishop Hill is a tourist town that depends on visitors to sustain our local commerce. This time of year, the streets would be hustling and bustling with visitors enjoying the spring weather. Now, it is like a ghost town. Granted, some businesses here do have an online presence and can do online sales, but in most cases, those sales do not make up for the walk-in sales that have been lost. The same can be said with the carryout orders for our restaurants. For the BHHA, our revenue has significantly decreased due a drastic drop in our gift shop sales and admission donations.
LI: Has the pandemic caused any specific program or event cancellation at Bishop Hill? If so, how are you dealing with these changes?
TD: All of our April events have been rescheduled or cancelled. Some of our May events have been rescheduled or cancelled. We are presently discussing what to do with the remainder of our May events and our June events, but are waiting to see what develops with the shelter-in-place order. For the BHHA, we have been doing more activities online, such as posting videos of Bishop Hill Colony history presentations. We know that some of the larger museums have created virtual tours but we lack the resources to do that.
LI: What is the biggest challenge for Bishop Hill right now as Illinois continues to shelter-in-place?
TD: The challenge for many of our businesses is simply survival until the shelter-in-place restrictions are relaxed or discontinued. Even then we are unsure if we will return to our normal visitor levels. The businesses in towns are not part of some corporation but are “mom-and-pop” operations that do not have the monetary reserves like the big chains. Many of our businesses are small businesses that are at risk of not surviving if the shelter-in-place order last for a long time.
LI: Are you able to focus on new or different programs or planning for future events during this down time?
TD: For the BHHA, our programming planning at this point consist of two parts: We are busy rescheduling or cancelling our spring events but we are also trying to organize events for 2021, which is the 175th anniversary of the Bishop Hill Colony. For next year, the coronavirus situation has added another level of uncertainty when it comes to planning. Many of our programs are partially financed by grants and business sponsorships. Will these foundations and businesses be able to help fund these programs at their usual donations next year or will their finances still be hurting from this year’s shut down? We do not know, and thus have to plan conservatively for 2021.
LI: How has the community come together during this time of crisis?
TD: Among the businesses and organizations, we have been sharing information ourselves about coronavirus relief programs for small businesses. Also, locals have been supporting the restaurants by purchasing carry-out orders and by buying online from our local shops, as much as they can. In addition, some owners have reduced rent for some of the gift shops in town.
LI: What is Bishop Hill looking forward to when it is able to open and welcome members of the public back in?
TD: For the BHHA and other organizations in town, we look forward to continuing our variety of educational programing in the form of workshops, demonstrations, concerts and festivals when the time is right. However, Bishop Hill does a variety of indoor and outdoor activities. When we do reopen, we will have to figure out what the new “normal” will be for these activities. For example, for our outdoor festivals, do we need to spread out the different activity sites more so people have more elbow room? For our indoor concerts, will we need to set a maximum number of attendees so people can space out from one other? These are questions that we are waiting for expert guidance on before making any final decisions.
LI: How can people support Bishop Hill during this time?
TD: For our nonprofit organizations, please continue your membership renewals and donations, if you can. Check out the BHHA website at www.bishophillheritage.org and our Colony Store (which is the BHHA’s gift shop). For the businesses in town, please shop online at our stores and order carryout from our restaurants if you are in the area. When the shelter-in-place order is changed or lifted, please come back and visit Bishop Hill. For our outdoor festivals, we have plenty of space in the park to hold everyone with room to spare.
(TOP PHOTO: COLONY STORE IN BISHOP HILL. COURTESY TODD DeDECKER)