You may have never thought about Pike County as a vacation destination, but a local entrepreneur has developed a gem in the rough that’s providing a special guest experience while boosting economic development.
Just over 16,000 people reside in Pike County, and with a population of nearly 4,600, Pittsfield, the county seat, is its largest city. With mile after mile of corn and soybeans, and bragging rights as the “hog capital of the Midwest,” farming is king in this area. That helps to sustain, but not necessarily grow the economy. Community leaders, including Gary Harpole, began working years ago to find ways to strategically market the area and enrich the economy.
When Harpole was a youngster, his grandfather’s farm in rural Pike County was an escape from city life in Quincy. There, he hunted and enjoyed other outdoor sports in the mix of prairie and hills in the scenic bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River. As he matured, he realized this was a place other people could also enjoy. He explains, “I dreamed of building a year-round resort for people who wanted a relaxing getaway and those from the cities who would want to experience the country lifestyle.”
Harpole’s dream became reality when he built his first lodge in 1995 and purchased his grandfather’s land in 2000, for the area’s modest hunting industry. As a nod to the local terrain, he named it Heartland Lodge. “When I first started [working on the resort], Pike County wasn’t really known for hunting,” he says. “That’s one of the things we marketed, and white tail [deer] hunting took off fast.” Now, white tail deer hunting has become a big part of the economy. Some big bucks harvested from the area are listed in the Boone & Crockett Club record book, the gold standard for trophy deer. With the lodge’s location between the Mississippi and Illinois flyways, it’s also the perfect spot for hunting water fowl, quail and pheasant.
As time passed, demand for the lodge was growing, and not just for hunters. Word was getting out, and others who craved the serenity of the lodge began to visit. Through time, Harpole purchased two additional lodges and a nearby luxury cabin. They and the original lodge offer 31 uniquely-themed rooms that range in accommodations from bunk beds to large suites with whirlpool tubs. They boast special touches that are upscale, yet homey, and designed for maximum relaxation and enjoyment.
The original lodge features a fabulous great room with a stone fireplace, two-story cathedral ceiling and a massive antler chandelier. Heavenly View cabin, with its southwestern decor, is located away from the lodges on a bluff with a spectacular view of the Mississippi River. The entry doors to Sunset Valley Lodge feature a hand carved wooden elk mural. A large porch on the back of the lodge is the perfect perch for viewing fabulous sunsets. The lodges and cabin feature large decks and areas for admiring the landscape and enjoying the local wildlife.
Harpole and his mother, lovingly called Miss Wanda, run the resort with the help of 35-55 full- and part-time employees, depending on the season. The Harpoles believe the employees are just an extension of their family, and treat them as such. The employees, in turn, treat guests like family. Everything there is “eat off the floor” clean.
No one walks away hungry. Family recipes, prepared on-site by a first-class chef and served family-style, are memorable. Lodge guests can purchase a meal package for brunch and dinner. Guests staying in the cabin are free to cook their own culinary delights in its spacious kitchen.
With a strong base of visitors already established, Harpole continued to brainstorm ways to bring a different type of visitor to the area. He began offering couple’s retreat packages, and the spot has become a popular wedding venue.
Earlier this summer, actress Jennifer Aniston and her husband Jason Theroux caused quite a stir in the area when they stayed at the lodge while in the area for a friend’s wedding. Kaye Iftner, executive director of the Pike County Chamber of Commerce, says, “There are just over 16,000 residents in the whole county. When a celebrity comes to town, everyone knows it.” The wedding they attended drew visitors from Los Angeles and New York who, according to Harpole, fell in love with the area. Other celebrity visitors who have enjoyed the lodge’s serenity have included Chicago Cubs Baseball owners, former Chicago Bears’ Manager Mike Ditka, and many professional baseball players. An autographed guitar country music star Aaron Tippin donated during a visit hangs on the fireplace in the original lodge.
Iftner says Harpole is innovative and always experimenting with new ideas. To draw people throughout the year, he has developed event weekends to appeal to specific niches. Girls’ Getaway weekends in January, April, May and July always sell out. Singles, or groups of ladies, converge on the resort for a fun-filled retreat. They enjoy wine tasting and the delicious food, camaraderie, a scenic hayride, a bonfire with s’mores, movie night, and maybe even a massage. They can also try something more daring, like horseback riding, pistol shooting, sporting clay shoots and archery. Seasonal activities such as morel mushroom hunting and blackberry picking round out the weekend fun.
And the meetings side of the business continues to grow. Heartland’s conference room, with a maximum capacity of 100, now hosts approximately 50 meetings per year. Harpole says the property is ideal for small group meetings-sales teams, board meetings and company retreats. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are available for meeting guests.
While these market segments of Heartland Lodge have helped the business grow, the all-terrain vehicle (ATV) side is booming. “That completely shocked me,” says Harpole. “I would never have guessed this.” The ATV craze is a fast-growing hobby, and now the biggest part of the lodge’s business. He explains, “It’s a sport for everyone-singles, couples and families.” They can rent ATVs from Heartland or bring their own. Families with ATVs who travel around the country seeking new places to ride now come to Heartland, and many riders come from the local area. Harpole adds, “They’ll book a whole lodge for their family. One family reunion has been held here for years. In past years, a couple of family members would bring their ATVs. Now, people have bought ATVs just for this reunion.”
To keep pace with ATV business demand, the resort is now home to two ATV parks, which were developed with assistance from more than $1.7 million in grants from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Approximately 60 miles of trails snake through the 1,200 acre-site. Harpole says the park is used by standard four-wheelers, which are farm-type vehicles, or side-by-side models that are sportier. Heartland Lodge also allows ATV riding as a day activity.
The cost to bring an ATV in for the day and use the trails is $30 per unit. This aspect of the business is helping to bring more consistent tourism to Pike County. Iftner explains, “We tend to be weighted with our tourism business in the fall. Having the ATV park evens it out and brings more people into the county in the spring and summer.” And that helps keep local businesses open all year long.
Iftner says Harpole is unique because he’s not just interested in promoting his own venue and lodges. She explains, “It would be easy for him to just promote towns in the immediate vicinity, but he encourages people to explore the whole area. I put together festival and parade lists, and he makes sure his guests get them so that if they want something a little different they can go to a local community, or eat some chicken on the square-things that make our community unique.”
With more than 1 million unique visitors to its website each year, 200,000 Facebook followers and 110,000 email subscribers, social media has been instrumental in the resort’s success. Heartland brings more than 20,000 visitors to the county per year, and ideas keep coming for drawing more. The regional impact has been significant as well. It’s estimated that visits to local restaurants, grocery stores, retail establishments and the resort now total more than $13.5 million per year. He explains, “When we first promoted the county, the real estate values were around $500 per acre. They now sell for $4,000-$4,500 per acre.”
Growth is inevitable, and Harpole has been able to look inside the community for assistance. Shawn Rennecker, Illinois Electric Cooperative’s economic development director, and Harpole met through serving together on local boards and economic development organizations. The cooperative, located in Winchester, has a similar mission of supporting the local and county economy and is considered a partner in the lodge’s success. Rennecker assisted Harpole with getting Heartland Lodge established in an enterprise zone, which will provide local tax incentives, and other advantages for future growth. Rennecker has been instrumental in finding options for financial assistance as well for when the time is right to take the next step for expansion. Rennecker says, “It’s great to see. It’s a two-county impact because he’s on the southern Pike and northern Calhoun county border and draws people from all over the Midwest.”
Everyone wins in this success story. “My motive now is leveraging what we’ve done here with the lodge to help our community. We’re bringing people in from all over the world, and especially from a six-hour radius to Pike County, Illinois,” says Harpole. “Our hope is to build on to this business, which we hope will in turn help grow the community, businesses, restaurants, shops and gas stations. As we continue to grow, it helps us and there are more things for our guests to do. What gets me out of bed is the motivation to help not only people in Pike County but in neighboring counties as well.”
All photos in this article were taken by Lori Biehl.