DeKALB – In the past few months, the DeKalb County Convention & Visitors Bureau lost its longtime leader, was told to find new offices by December, and its interim director’s last day was Friday. But a familiar face is set to take the reins and ensure the tourism continues to grow in 2020.
When the DeKalb County Convention & Visitors Bureau was founded in 2006, Bonnie Heimbach sat on the board of directors for the first three years, coaching and advising the new bureau from her role at the state level. More than a decade later, she’s returning to spend three months as interim executive director.
“I thought I was retiring in December 2018,” Heimbach joked Monday, four hours into her new role. She’s been in the industry for 25 years and retired from her job as executive director of the Northern Illinois Tourism Development Office, but came back to the field at the request of Brad Hoey, chairman of the CVB board.
Longtime director and founder Debbie Armstrong retired in March, and interim Director Erin Reynolds’ last day was Friday, leaving the bureau to scramble to find staff. The board of directors voted Heimbach in Thursday.
“We’re really fortunate to have Bonnie,” Hoey said Monday, sitting in the bureau’s offices in the Nehring building downtown. “I can’t say how excited we are to have somebody with Bonnie’s experience and background knowledge to be on board. She’s well known among the county and many of our stakeholders. She helped get this organization off the ground. So this is a great transition into the next era for the CVB.”
It’s been quite the year for the bureau, Hoey said, with staffing changes and soon an office move in the books. But he said that with Heimbach’s help, the bureau soon will hire another full-time executive director and a second full-time staff person to head into 2020.
A 2018 economic impact report released by the bureau showed that DeKalb County generated $1.7 million in local tax revenue and $101.7 million in visitor expenditures. That’s a 3% visitor expense increase and a 1.5% tax revenue boost from 2017.
The bureau’s mission is to generate economic impact and promote DeKalb County as a destination for business and leisure travel, according to its website. It serves as the first point of contact for organizations and business looking to host events and conventions, promote festivals, parks or other draws to the region.
With tourism numbers up for the eighth consecutive year in Illinois, Heimbach feels confident the momentum will continue.
“Some people wonder why [tourists] come here.” Heimbach said. “You can see going to Florida, you’ve got oceans. You go out to Colorado, you’ve got mountains. But we have Chicago as an international hub, and you also have, and some people don’t like to talk about this, but St. Louis has a huge metropolitan draw which falls into the southern part of the state.”
Heimbach’s state-level approach to tourism comes from her days working at the Northern Illinois tourism office and helping DeKalb County and McHenry County form their own bureaus in 2006.
“Part of the initial process was the local partners felt that they were ready to take that next step and unify under one voice and really come together,” Heimbach said. “Since I had been on the steering committee, I sat on each of their boards for first three years.”
In that time, Heimbach worked closely with former executive director Armstrong to get the lay of the land, and will also help transition the office to a new space.
Along with the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce and the DeKalb Area Agricultural Heritage Association, the bureau rents space in the Nehring building from the DeKalb Park District. The district is in the process of handing over ownership of the building to the city, which soon will use the former bank for City Hall.
The CVB and others will have to vacate the space by December for the city move, though Hoey said they have not yet identified a new office space.
“We’re still looking at different options,” Hoey said. “Our goal is to be in a new location sometime in the fall. We’re right at fall’s doorstep.”
Hoey said with Kite Fest – just one of many annual events the bureau helps organize and promote – set for Sept. 8 and the Illinois High School Association competition in November, an ideal time to move would be between the two events.
Part of Heimbach’s role will be keeping the ship afloat while she and the board of directors help find the next bureau leader.
“Tourism people are one of my favorite groups,”said Heimbach, who lives in Rockford. “I’ve loved this industry. I worked for the Rockford bureau, too. This is a zany group of people who have passion, heart, energy, they love what they do. And when you are offering that as a job, you need to find the right mix.”