Illinois is on the brink of its bicentennial bash, but political skirmishing that has battered the state could be blamed for late party planning, a comparatively low budget — and ultimately, its contribution to future generations.
The plans to celebrate Illinois' Dec. 3, 1818, admission to the Union seem to pale compared with the two states that joined just prior. Indiana and Mississippi spent tens of millions of dollars and have flashy "legacy" projects to show off. The Prairie State, just seven weeks from kickoff of its yearlong festivities, is aiming to raise a modest $4 million to $6 million.
Stuart Layne, executive director of the Illinois Bicentennial, acknowledges planning got a belated start with his appointment just a year ago. While he said significant corporate and other donors are stepping up, he would not say how much has been raised.
But he dismissed the idea that two years of infighting in the 21st state between Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who appointed him, and Democrats who control the General Assembly over a budget that is billions in the red, has hamstrung the project.
He said he's taken two things from virtually every conversation he's had about the Illinois celebration.
"People want us to use the bicentennial as a platform to change the conversation about the state of Illinois, to talk about all the great things that Illinois has contributed to society," Layne said in a speech in Springfield this month. "The second is pride. People are proud to be from this state. ... That has become our mantra."
There are plans for exhibits; a school curriculum; a United Center ceremony honoring 200 Illinoisans in arts, entertainment, sports, agriculture and business; and more.
But it's hard not to notice what's been done elsewhere. Raising $55 million by leasing unused state-owned cell-tower space, Indiana, which celebrated its bicentennial last December, built a state archives building, a statehouse-lawn bicentennial plaza, a state-library learning center and an inn at a state park.
In Mississippi, years of planning went into the celebration, along with over $100 million — including $90 million from taxpayers — for construction of the Museum of Mississippi History and Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in downtown Jackson. Katie Blount, the bicentennial organizer and director of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, said the museums will open Dec. 9, on the eve of Mississippi's birthday.
It's nice to cut ribbons on grand projects to mark such events. Illinois did it when ground was broken for the $3 million Centennial Building, now the Michael J. Howlett Building, on the state Capitol grounds in 1918. But the key to Indiana's celebration was buy-in, said former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton, a Democrat who chaired the state's bicentennial with then-Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman, a Republican.
"We'd go to the civic groups, the Rotary, or Kiwanis with our bicentennial plans and say, 'What are you going to do about it?'" Hamilton said. "We'd push and prod, and some would ignore you, some would say, 'You're wasting your time,' but most reacted positively to it. It instilled some pride and people started to say, 'I'm glad I'm a Hoosier.'"
Yes, Indiana's commission had a top-notch staff that traveled 65,000 miles and visited 300 communities, Hamilton said, but coordinators in all 92 counties directed how to celebrate in a locally appropriate way, he said.
Layne, who's paid $142,000 through state tourism funds, said he has a small staff.
In Mississippi, Blount agreed that people are key. The state-of-the-art museums cover the sweep of state history and, in the Civil Rights section, the state's unique place — warts and all — in the struggle for racial equality. They will be the state's birthday gift to the future.
"But the bicentennial celebrations that took place in communities across the state had a real grassroots spirit and reflected lots of different people's ideas about what the bicentennial means to Mississippi," Blount said. "And the funding came from many sources in addition to the Mississippi Legislature."