Tollway oases still have vacancies, but not weeds
Hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Bonding with dolphins in Florida. Lazing on the beach in Door County. Who needs that?
For my summer getaway, I prefer a fun-filled trip to the Illinois tollway oases. They've got everything. Jerky at the 7-Eleven. Cornfields. Gyros sandwiches. Scenic views of airplanes, Medieval Times and corporate campuses. More gyros.
It was early Wednesday when I gassed up and set out for my quasi-annual oases inspection. Notorious for insipid revenues and patronage contracts during the era of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, the seven oases have kept a lower profile with a new regime at the agency.
At previous tours in 2009 and 2010, I noticed vacancies, weed-filled grounds and a numbing monoculture of fast-food.
This year showed improvement. Tollway contractor U.S. Equities has managed the oases for the past three years. And boy, do they love mulch. Landscaping, while not inspired, is at least tidy and there's been a weed beat down I wish I could achieve at home.
The variety of shops and restaurants is a tad less duplicative with a popcorn stand in Lake Forest and local bakery operating a kiosk in Hinsdale, for example. But overall, I don't think the offerings quite match up to the tollway website's characterization of a "unique blend of restaurants and retailers."
Gas prices at the Mobils ranged all over the map that day, from $4.21 for a gallon of regular at the Lincoln Oasis near South Holland to a blessed $3.87 at the Belvidere Oasis.
But empty store spaces and kiosks are still an issue, particularly at the DeKalb Oasis, which resembles a ghost town with a McDonald's. And could someone erect an umbrella at some of those picnic areas with no shade whatsoever?
Here's an unscientific recap of what you can find at the seven rest stops.
• Hinsdale Oasis: Starbucks, Subway, Kronos Gyros, Taco Bell/KFC, Sbarro, Auntie Anne's Pretzels, McDonald's, Panda Express, Travel Mart, plus a new EnJoi bakery kiosk and wireless kiosk. As for vacancies -- I'd put it at five.
• O'Hare Oasis: Starbucks, Subway, Kronos Gyros, Taco Bell/KFC, Sbarro, Auntie Anne's Pretzels, McDonald's, Panda Express, Travel Mart, and a jewelry kiosk and new Jaffa Bakery stand serving Middle Eastern specialties. By my count, about six vacancies. While David Hasselhoff was not on exhibit, his "Knight Rider" car was.
• Des Plaines Oasis: Starbucks, Kronos Gyros, Taco Bell/KFC, Sbarro, Auntie Anne's Pretzels, McDonald's, Panda Express, Travel Mart and a Baskin-Robbins ice cream stand. I saw five vacancies.
• Chicago Southland Lincoln Oasis: Starbucks, Subway, Sbarro, Auntie Anne's Pretzels, McDonald's, Panda Express and a variety-store-type kiosk. My estimate was eight vacancies. Of note -- an indoor play area for kids.
• Lake Forest Oasis: Starbucks, Subway, Kronos Gyros, Taco Bell/KFC, Sbarro, Auntie Anne's Pretzels, McDonald's, Panda Express, Travel Mart, and wireless kiosk. Newcomers included a DQ/Orange Julius stand, a Jaffa Bakery, and Doc Popcorn. I counted four vacancies. Of note -- a handicraft booth with gifts including a brass stag that I'm sure will make someone in Lake Forest happy this Christmas.
• Belvidere Oasis: Starbucks, Subway, Kronos Gyros, Sbarro, Auntie Anne's Pretzels, McDonald's, Panda Express, Travel Mart and DQ/Orange Julius Stand. I saw eight vacancies.
• DeKalb Oasis -- still the saddest oasis ever. Food included: Starbucks, Subway, McDonald's, Panda Express. A Travel Mart -- and about nine vacancies.
A number of the oases had customer service booths. I'd give the customer service a 50/50 rating as I had a cranky/friendly reception from two employees when I asked for a map.
U.S. Equities spokesman Bill Utter said the company took over the oases at a challenging time and has worked hard to turn them around and retain tenants.
Sales are up 4 percent and foot traffic has grown by 3 percent in the first seven months of 2012 compared to the same time period in 2011, Utter said. Operationally, the company is reducing energy and water consumption at oases with low-flow toilets.
Tenants like Doc Popcorn are popping up, and coming soon will be Zoom Systems -- Best Buy self-service retail vending, he added.
What about the empty kiosks and retail spaces?
"We know there are opportunities for more tenants and are conducting aggressive marketing and outreach efforts to attract more food and service offerings," Utter said in an email. "The goal is to provide an improved experience for tollway users, and customers for our tenants. We've come a long way and will continue to push for more."
Tollway spokeswoman Wendy Abrams said the agency has worked to host special events that will be helpful to tollway customers at oases and nearby residents, such as child-safety seat checks, paper recycling and shredding, a "Portrait of a Soldier" memorial exhibit and displays of high school students' artwork.
Revenues in 2010 and 2011 were $743,000, the same amount as stipulated by contract, but 2012 looks more promising with $389,000 so far in the first six months.
While the tourists from Pennsylvania I talked to loved the Hinsdale oasis, regulars were underwhelmed. Limo driver Chuck Onsum of Madison, Wis., missed the Dunkin' Donuts restaurants and thinks it's pretty much status quo. "They haven't changed anything," he said. Truck driver Rick Kupi of Bartlett summed up the oases as "all right."
So what's your opinion? Is there anything you want to see at tollway oases, or do you never use them? Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ouch. Tuesday marks the start of IDOT construction on the western Algonquin bypass. Workers are rebuilding a stretch of Route 31 from Cary Road to Edgewood Drive and a new interchange at Routes 31 and 62. Expect lane closures and traffic. It will all be better by summer 2014.
Wow, high-speed rail is still riling up everyone, including Karl Hipchen of Palatine. He writes, "Do we need any clearer of an indicator that our politicians are completely out of touch when they think cutting an hour and a half transit time traveling Chicago to St. Louis for over a billion dollars is a good idea? Spend that money on infrastructure improvements that would move rail freight, cars, trucks, et cetera more efficiently."
You can cavort on the streets of Chicago and not worry about being hit by a bus from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday. State Street from Lake to Van Buren Streets and Monroe Street from State to Lake Shore Drive will be open to pedestrians at the Open Streets event sponsored by the Active Transportation Alliance and the Chicago Loop Alliance. Biking, running, yoga, playgrounds and climbing walls are among the activities. For information, visit www.openstreetschicago.org.
Bus route bingoThe CTA plans to eliminate bus service on some routes and increase it on others to cut costs and reduce crowding. The plan was developed with help from the Northwestern University Transportation Center. A public hearing is set for 6 p.m. Tuesday at CTA headquarters, 567 W. Lake St., Chicago. To learn if any bus routes you take are affected, go to http://www.transitchicago.com/.