Tourism is a poor foundation to build an economy on. However, there is ample evidence that harnessing the resurgent interest in Route 66 as a catalyst for redevelopment can transform and revitalize a community.
Simply put, if you transform a community into a destination, you make it a place people want to live, raise families, and open businesses. In part this is resultant of the simple fact that to make a town or city a destination for travelers, you first need to develop a unified sense of community as well as a unified sense of direction.
As with any project the first step is research and homework. With that said, if you are serious about seeing your community emulate the Phoenix, or need a bit of inspiration to fire the imagination, I strongly suggest a Route 66 field trip.
At the very least, initiate discussion, or correspondence with key people in communities that have capitalized on the popularity of Route 66, tied it to that towns unique attributes, and as a result, are witnessing truly amazing transition. Many of these people are surprisingly accessible, and they are eager to share stories of success.
Topping my list of Route 66 communities to emulate would be Pontiac, Illinois. Ellie Alexander, the director of tourism in that city has spearheaded a variety of programs that have resulted in an average 25% increase in visitor count for each of the past four years in spite of the current economic climate.
Bob Russell, the two term mayor of Pontiac, has bucked trends, and endured open opposition to create a sense of community. During his tenure the historic district of Pontiac has been transformed from an architecturally impressive ghost town into a vital, thriving hub of commerce.
Another community to evaluate would be Galena, Kansas. This is an historic mining town where the population plummeted from 30,000 in 1920 to approximately 3,000 today.
Less than five years ago they had one functioning streetlight in the historic district, and the sidewalks were turning to gravel. In less than 36 months the streetlights were replaced, sidewalks repaired, and three new restaurants opened.
Even more important, the community has parlayed its transformation into an economy based on more than tourism. This year a state of the art, 15,000-square foot surgery center opened in town.
Communities are not the only venue for evaluating ways to harness the resurgent interest in Route 66 or getting a bit of inspiration. There are a number of business owners who are quite eager to offer advice, ideas, and encouragement.
Connie Echols at the historic Wagon Wheel Motel in Cuba, Missouri, Kevin and Nancy Mueller at the Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari, Kumar Patel at the Wigwam Motel in Rialto, Richard Tally at the Motel Safari in Tucumcari, and Vickie Ashcraft at the Enchanted Trails Trading Post and RV Park in Albuquerque have extensive experience in overcoming the trials and tribulations associated with community apathy and a litany of other issues. Again, a field trip is best but a phone call or two could easily start the ball rolling in your community.
In our next posting I will turn the focus toward Kingman, and discuss in painful detail the success and failures, as well as exciting developments that were years in the making.
Concerning the promotion/development of Route 66 in Cuba, MO. Cuban Fran Eickhoff promoted enthusiasm for Route 66 in Cuba, long before Connie Echols purchased the Wagon Wheel motel and began restoration in 2009. Small Cuba (pop 3400) had a larger business membership in the Missouri Route 66 Association than any other Route 66 town, including Springfield and St. Louis. Viva Cuba's outdoor mural program began in 2000 with 12 murals painted along the Route 66 corridor several years before Connie restored the Wagon Wheel, a presence in Cuba since 1935. Many businesses have also spent money on their own public art to support the idea of the “Route 66 Mural City.” And the Cuba 2007 sesquicentennial also emphasized the importance of Route 66 to our town's development. The Crawford Country History Museum in Cuba's Route 66 room also emphasizes the importance of Route 66 to our townspeople. Cuba values the improvements at the Wagon Wheel and enjoys the presence of the World's Largest Rocking Chair at nearby Fanning. Our annual 4-mile “Route 66 Race to the Rocker” in March that closes down Route 66 during the race from historic Cuba to the Rocker is one of the most anticipated events of the year. We appreciate the travelers that visit Cuba from the US and around the world. We both revere and enjoy our presence on Route 66, and there are many blogs celebrating its local history at http://www.cubamomurals.com. While we are always working on improving our town and there is much we still want to do and need to do, I don't think apathy is the correct word to connect with Cuba, MO. We are a work in progress.