Pontiac subject of Belarusian research

By John Holaway, Staff Reporter

What is it that makes Pontiac a viable tourist destination? How does Pontiac create and maintain its small-town appeal? How do city leaders - professional and governmental - work together to promote culture and preserve the history of their respective towns?

These are a few of the questions a group of delegates from Belarus sought to figure out during a visit to Pontiac Monday. From 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., 10 Belarusians were given a brief presentation and tour of the city as part of a trip coordinated by an organization from Chicago to learn about how Pontiac functions as a tourist attraction for travelers from around the world.

"This group is learning about how to preserve their cultural heritage in Belarus," said Donna Sadlicki, director of operations for the International Visitors Center of Chicago. "It's a professional exchange and helps them get to know Americans and get information they can take home and apply in their areas of expertise."

The group was welcomed to the community by Mayor Scott McCoy, then watched a 45-minute presentation on Pontiac and its development and attractions by various city officials on the second floor of the Route 66 Hall of Fame & Museum. Following the presentation, the delegates toured the museum complex before having lunch at DeLong's Casual Dining. After lunch they took a trolley tour, traveling along Route 66 and past such landmarks as Pontiac Correctional Center, Chautauqua Park and the swinging bridges, and Route 116 to the hospital. A walking tour of downtown followed and the group's visit wrapped up with a trip to How Sweet It Is for dessert before departing for Springfield.

"They wanted to come and visit Pontiac to see tourism and what we're doing to learn from us," said Pontiac tourism director Ellie Alexander. "We gave them a classroom presentation where they could ask questions and then toured the town where they could see why we're a destination."

The Belarusians were interested in many aspects of Illinois and its history, according to McCoy, especially its ties to Abraham Lincoln and Route 66.

"They're learning more about tourism in Illinois, the United States and smaller communities," stated McCoy. "We're showing them where we are with tourism and our museums. They're a very inquisitive group and are very engaged and just fascinated with Route 66 and Abraham Lincoln."

The delegates are in the United States as part of a USDA-funded program called Community Connections, in which groups apply to come to the U.S. as part of an international cooperative to increase relations between states. According to Sadlicki, a "variety of disciplines" use the program such as those seeking insight on the rule of law, drug abuse and the environment to name a few. The Belarusian group includes museum directors, tourism promoters, a theater director, a master wood carver, a folk doll designer and others who are involved in preserving the arts.

"They hold positions of importance in organizations and are shown a model of a successful smaller town and go back and say this is how we cooperate," said Sadlicki. "Mike Jackson of the Illinois Preservation Agency suggested we might like to go to Pontiac on our way to Springfield - that it was terrifically interesting."

The group arrived in the United States June 25 and will depart July 16. What is unique about their stay, according to Sadlicki, is that they stay in the homes of volunteers. This increases their American experience and helps them get to know Americans on an individual basis.

"They are able to meet Americans and get immersed in the culture because they live in an American home," she said. "It helps create great relations."

A pair of the Belarusians, through translator Gene Davidovich, told a reporter about their experience.

Alena Papkouskaya, a museum researcher of material culture, was intrigued by the cooperation of government, private and individual entities in enhancing Pontiac's appeal.

"The combination of government and private and volunteer efforts to combine and achieve the total goal is most interesting," said Papkouskaya through translator Gene Davidovich. "Sometimes it's very difficult for the private sector and government to combine those efforts. When they do the result is good. It's very important to the preservation of historical sites, irrespective of whether it's persons like Lincoln or architectural designs."

Woodworker artist/craftsman Dmitri Zaitsev is interested in turning ideas into actual projects, something he said those in his country could learn from the United States.

"I've participated in many project in culture in my republic," said Zaitsev. "I'm very interested to know the experience of the embodiment of ideas of projects, in other words, how ideas come into concrete results.

"That's why it's very interesting in how America is a big material culture and how it combines business and creativity," he added. "In Belarus we have many beautiful ideas, but we lack some experience in how to translate ideas into concrete projects. That's why I see it is a very interesting experience - what is necessary to translate ideas into projects. (So) any multicultural interaction between countries is interesting. I believe between my country and this country we have many points of mutual interest in culture."

Zaitsev said his favorite part of his American trip so far was a community fair hosted for local artists in Lake Forest, but that "generally I like everything. It is fun and everywhere you see useful, interesting and exciting things."