The Chicago Zoological Society will run shuttle buses from its South Gate to business districts in both Riverside and Brookfield this summer as part of a pilot program to help the villages benefit from Brookfield Zoo’s 2 million-plus visitors annually.

While still in the planning stages, officials from both villages and the Chicago Zoological Society have confirmed that the shuttle busses will run on four weekends: July 9-10, July 16-17, July 23-24 and July 30-31. If the pilot program is a success, it could be extended in the future.

“There are some tremendous small businesses and community assets in Brookfield and Riverside, and the Chicago Zoological Society is proud to continue to do its part to highlight those wonderful small businesses and encourage our visitors to support them,” said Matthew Mayer, vice president for government affairs for the Chicago Zoological Society.

For decades people, particularly in Brookfield, have envisioned a shuttle bus or trolley program to bring visitors from the zoo into the business district. But none of those conversations ever resulted in an actual plan.

On Feb. 23, Mayer invited officials from both villages and both chambers of commerce to the zoo to discuss implementing the plan. The zoo will be able to shuttle visitors to and from the South Gate to one spot in each village. The zoo will help market the shuttle program in its member publications and inside the park.

But for the program to work, it’ll be up to the chambers and villages to work collaboratively to entice visitors to hop on the shuttles and come to town.

“The zoo has taken the biggest, most difficult step by having the trolley,” said Mike McNeily, president of the Brookfield Chamber of Commerce. “The chambers have to figure out how to market this and businesses have to come up with deals and how to track them.

“The advertising and awareness the zoo is able to generate could be absolutely huge for business owners around here,” McNeily added.

McNeily said he’s not sure yet where the shuttle bus will be stopping in Brookfield. However, in Riverside the drop-off/pick-up location will be on Pine Avenue adjacent to the north train platform.

According to Riverside Village Manager Peter Scalera, he’ll be having a follow-up meeting with the chamber, the Olmsted Society and Historical Museum to brainstorm different ideas for drawing visitors to that village’s central business district.

“We want to try and come up with different things we’ll have happen on those weekends to give them a reason to get on the trolley to come to the village,” Scalera said.

One idea, Scalera said, was to schedule the chamber’s July car show for one of the Saturdays. Others included keeping the Historical Museum open longer hours on those weekends and hosting walking tours of the village on those weekends.

“The zoo has such a huge customer base,” said Dave Moravecek, president of the Riverside Township Chamber of Commerce. “If we can show some of those people a little something, some touch of what Riverside is all about, on their next visit, maybe they’ll want to come to Riverside. We’re looking forward to seeing how this is going to go.”

According to Moravecek, Mayer also gave a standing offer for both villages and chambers to participate in special events at the zoo to marketing their communities.

“We’re looking forward not only to this new relationship with the zoo, but to them inviting us to join in on events to tie in,” Moravecek said.