DECATUR - The choice of Decatur as the site for the 2008 Illinois Republican convention can be attributed not only to the hard work of local officials but also to the mystique of Abraham Lincoln.

The event will be June 6 and 7 at the Decatur Conference Center and Hotel.

State Sens. Frank Watson, R-Greenville, and Bill Brady, R-Bloomington, stood in front of the Lincoln statue at Main and Main streets Friday morning to make the official announcement. Word of the event's coming leaked Thursday.

Standing on the site where many consider Lincoln made his first political speech in 1830, Watson said the convention is expected to draw 1,000 to 1,500 people to the community and pump between $250,000 and $300,000 into the local economy.

"We'll have influential people here from throughout the state and maybe the nation," Watson said. "Decatur is a good community. I'm sure they will go home with a good feeling about Decatur."

"We're hoping the convention next June will be the beginning of the rebirth of the Illinois Republican Party," Brady said. "As much as this is a credit to the committee that put the presentation together, it is a credit to the area and a positive, progressive community."

Efforts to bring the state convention to town began about four months ago, when a solicitation for proposals was received from the state party, said James Gresham, Macon County Republican chairman.

Gresham said he and other local Republicans quickly realized that they needed help to put together a plan and contacted Denene Wilmeth, executive director of the Decatur Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, who joined in the effort.

"A lot of this (success) is due to Lincoln heritage," Gresham said. "But it also takes a community that is vibrant and alive."

"When we want something, we have the people to go after it," said Decatur Mayor Paul Osborne.

Kim Bauer, director of the city's Lincoln heritage project, said a convention selection committee member told him four communities were in the running for the convention and, initially, Decatur was in fourth place. He said that was before committee members visited the community.

Wilmeth said she was driving the van that took the committee around town.

"When we were downtown on South Park Street, Kim was telling them about the Wigwam," Wilmeth said, referring to the temporary wood and canvas structure that housed the 1860 state Republican convention at which Lincoln first was nominated for president. The structure was behind what now is Main Street Bank & Trust, 130 N. Water St.

"Kim said, 'Would you like to get out and walk where Mr. Lincoln walked and stand where Mr. Lincoln stood?' " Wilmeth said, "That's when I knew we had them. They were so excited, they didn't want to get back in the van."

The selection committee was made up of Carbondale Mayor Brad Cole, a Macon County native; Bolingbrook Mayor Roger Claar; and Kenilworth village President Tolbert Chisum, a Lincoln aficionado whom Bauer, a former Lincoln collection curator for the state, has known for many years.

"Tolbert loved the connection with Lincoln heritage," Bauer said. "When we got out of the van, we were standing on hallowed ground for him. But the Lincoln heritage combined with the other parts of the whole package - the volunteers, the facilities and the strong convention and visitors bureau."

Word on Decatur's ties to Lincoln is spreading, Bauer said. The Illinois State Audubon Society will also hold its convention in Decatur next year and wants to visit the Lincoln family homestead near Harristown to have a picnic and do some bird watching, he said.

Ron Ingram can be reached at ringram@herald-review.com or 421-7973.

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