|When Project New Leaf was in the planning stages, a decision was made to keep the park open to visitors during construction. This required organizing the project in phases, so that large portions of the park could remain undisturbed while work proceeded in other areas.
As the third and final phase presses on with the renovation of McCormick House, we can say that the strategy worked well. The park stayed open (pre-pandemic), events were held, and visitor inconvenience was minimized.
That isn’t to say it was easy. Working around Project New Leaf has been a multi-year challenge for Director of Visitor Services Magan Ascher and her team.
Ascher joined Cantigny in 2007 in the foodservice department, coming over from The Hyatt Lodge McDonald’s Campus in Oakbrook Terrace. She was in catering at Hyatt, and before that worked in management for the Chili’s restaurant chain.
After climbing the ladder within Cantigny’s catering and restaurant operations, Ascher jumped to her present position in 2014. Instead of banquets and weddings, her daily focus became concerts, special events and festivals. She also oversees Cantigny Security, the Cantigny Shop and the park’s membership programs.
Ascher holds a bachelor’s degree in Food and Nutrition with a specialty in Hospitality from Southern Illinois University. She lives with her family in St. Charles and looks forward to a gradual return to regular activities at Cantigny in 2021.
Q: Working around Project New Leaf probably seems like a good memory compared with COVID-19 and all the adjustments that has required! But thinking back, what were some of the major challenges you faced during “PNL” construction?
A: The top priority was to keep Cantigny visitors safe. With construction taking place around the park we had to keep them out of certain areas. We spent a lot of money on temporary signs! The signs were also needed to maintain good circulation through the park, to keep visitors from running into dead ends. There were times, I’ll admit, that it was easy to get confused. Our color-coded park map was constantly changing. Another challenge was creating 5K courses for the various charities that use Cantigny to host their fundraising walks and runs.
Q: From a Visitor Services standpoint, what was more difficult to manage, Phase I or Phase II?
A: Phase I for sure, because that involved the parking lots. The south lot was closed or partially closed in 2017 and 2018 while we added 350 new spaces and built the restroom building near the tank park. There’s nothing worse than being short on parking before a concert or big event and cars are streaming in the front gate! But we always managed and I’m still grateful for the patience of our visitors. They recognized that the project would benefit them in the long run.
Q: Project New Leaf construction no doubt scared away a few potential guests, and then came the pandemic. When do you think Cantigny Park attendance will return to “normal”?
A: I’m hoping to see a “new normal” in 2022, but I think it’ll still be a few years before we get back to pre-COVID attendance levels. I also think the pandemic has given everyone the opportunity to slow down a bit. The fast pace that we were used to will return eventually but I feel that people now appreciate the open space and peace that the park and gardens offer a little bit more. We were happy to be a community resource in 2020 and many visitors thanked us for it. We’re still playing that role in 2021 and hopefully we always will.
Q: Of all the Project New Leaf improvements, additions and renovations, do you have a favorite? What do you think turned out best? What do guests seem to appreciate most?
A: My favorite new elements are the Logarium and the Rock Garden. They are so different from anything we had before. The Keyhole Garden is still my favorite place in the park. We are all very pleased with how the Fountain Garden turned out, and how it resembles the original fountain from the 1970s. To me, the fountain represents the peace and serenity of Cantigny Park. Visitors are loving it, too—with the seat wall and all the new benches, it’s a great gathering spot. This summer, guests will have a chance to experience the fountain and surrounding gardens during the evening. The lighting we installed will bring a whole new dimension to the park.
Q: When McCormick House reopens in 2022, Project New Leaf will be officially over. Will the park have a celebration? Will you?
A: For sure! I’ll be happy when it’s over—we ALL will be. We’ve been at this a long time and our visitors have been so patient. Nothing is planned yet but the park will definitely celebrate the occasion and we’ll invite the whole community. Hopefully by then the pandemic will be completely behind us and we’ll have even more to celebrate—with no masks!