Tollway oases vacancies and monoculture show need for change

Oh autumn. It summons that gypsy wanderer deep in every soul to partake in adventurous outings to hike the Appalachian Trail or at least the Prairie Path.

For me, the call of the wild manifested itself in my now annual Illinois tollway oases road trip. One day, 271 miles, seven oases.

This folly started last year amid turmoil concerning the fate of the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority's glass-walled rest stops. At that time, the operator of the oases, California-based Wilton Partners, was in court over foreclosure procedures filed by its lender, iStar Financial. The win-win lease deal touted by then tollway leaders back in 2002 whereby Wilton rebuilt and managed the oases for 25 years had flopped, big time. After spending about $100 million on construction, Wilton fell behind on rent to the tollway and its lenders.

I set off in August 2009 for a unscientific survey of the rest stops. I found shuttered kiosks and shops, mangy landscaping and a monoculture of fast-fast offerings.

This Thursday, I saw shuttered kiosks and shops, improved but sketchy landscaping and a monoculture of fast-food. You can get a quarter-pounder with cheese, wash it down with a pumpkin spice latte and cleanse the palate with beef broccoli stir fry at every single oases if you so desire.

But all facilities were clean and I loved the turbo driers that send ripples of skin coursing across your hands in the washrooms.

Here's a quick recap - starting with what I call the saddest oasis ever.

• DeKalb Oasis. Ghost town doesn't begin to describe this rest stop. All the neon of the ubiquitous Panda Express, McDonald's, Subway and Starbucks there can't counter wall after wall of boarded up kiosks. But it would make a good set for a mystery movie.

• Belvidere Oasis. Open - McDonald's, Starbucks, Panda Express, Auntie Anne's pretzels, Subway, Kronos Gyros, Travel Mart. I counted nine shuttered shops and vacant spaces. Tried Panda's Thai chicken - not as atrocious as I had feared.

• Des Plaines Oasis. Features a McDonald's, Starbucks, Panda Express, Auntie Anne's (are you noticing a pattern here?), Subway, a tollway info center and Travel Mart. Looked like seven vacancies. And a rare sighting of a new restaurant - a Baskin Robbins/Dunkin' Donuts kiosk.

• Lake Forest Oasis. Tons of trucks outside. Inside - the usual suspects although this oasis also offers a Taco Bell/KFC duo to maximize eating pleasure. I saw nine empty kiosks. And maybe because this is Lake Forest, a worker was weeding the parkway.

• O'Hare Oasis. Featuring Panda Express, Starbucks, McDonald's, Auntie Anne's, Starbucks, Kronos, Subway, Travel Mart, a tollway service center and about 11 empty spaces. Rather weedy outside.

• Hinsdale Oasis. Plants did seem less pathetic than in 2009. No surprises in the restaurant options and eight vacancies.

• Lincoln Oasis. Dead bushes. Open - Starbucks, McDonald's, Auntie Anne's, Panda Express, Subway, Travel Mart and a tollway info center. About nine empty retail areas.

What's next? As of fall 2010, the foreclosure case is wrapping up. iStar is expected to bid to acquire the lease to operate the oases in a court-ordered auction this month, and the firm U.S. Equities is handling the day-to-day management of the facilities.

The big question is - how can the oases be profitable and relevant when many tollway users are I-PASS users who can exit anywhere for food or gas? The rest stops aren't the only game in town any more and the vacancies reflect that.

Tollway Executive Director Kristi Lafleur has this comment on the status of the oases. "We want the oases to continue to be a useful asset to our customers - and will continue to work with the management entity to achieve that."

Personally, I'd like to see more restaurants reflecting local specialties rather than national chains and the abandoned restaurant kiosks that epitomize failure removed. Essentially, as Taco Bell puts it, the agency needs to think outside the bun.