Tourism in general is a very poor foundation upon which to build a communities economy. However, in the process of transforming the community into a destination for tourists it becomes a place that people want to live, to raise families, and to open businesses. This process of transformation can also serve to build a unified sense of community and community purpose.
This is not to be confused with turning a town into a low budget imitation of Disneyland. Visitors, especially Route 66 enthusiasts want an authentic as well as unique experience. This is especially true along the Route 66 corridor where a primary draw for legions of international fans is the opportunity to experience the romanticized vision of America as it was, as well as the America that is.
In spite of the swelling tsunami of international fascination with Route 66, most communities along that highways corridor have yet to grasp the potential for development and redevelopment this interest represents. A few have misinterpreted it and a scant few have properly harnessed it.
Seligman, Ash Fork, and Williams in Arizona make for excellent case studies. Williams thirty five years ago was a faded old town of empty store fronts. Today it is a thriving community with a tangible sense of vibrancy and excitement in the air. However, with the installation of zip lines over its historic district and similar endeavors there is an increasing risk that the authenticity, the unique attributes that make Williams special, will be overshadowed and lost.
Take a few minutes to drive the streets of Ash Fork and you quickly discover that it is a fascinating old town filled with a wide array of historic gems in spite of two fires that decimated a large portion of the business district. The town, however, is about as lively as the guest of honor at a funeral. In the air is a tangible sense of apathy and indifference, the opposite of what is felt in Williams.
Next, please consider Seligman. In comparison with Ash Fork or Williams, the tangible links to the historic nature of the community are relatively sparse. There is also a tendency to lean toward the garish, toward looking to Disneyland for inspiration.
Angel Delgadillo in Seligman, Arizona
Still, this old town is clearly a destination as evidenced by the string or tour buses and the ebb and flow of crowds that on occasion make it seem more like Times Square on New Years Eve than a dusty territorial era town on the western frontier. On the next visit take the time to evaluate this popularity from a coldly clinical approach and you will see that as popular as the Snow Cap Drive In and Seligman Sundries are, the cornerstone of the towns rebirth, popularity and subsequent transformation into a destination is one man – Angel Degadillo.
When speaking on this subject there are three communities that serve as my primary examples of how to successfully harness the resurgent interest in Route 66 as a catalyst for long term development; Pontiac, Illinois, Cuba, Missouri, and Galena, Kansas.
Each of these communities have been dramatically transformed, or are on the fast track toward transformation, into exciting, vital, thriving towns but they have not allowed Route 66 to overshadow their unique attributes. Instead they have used Route 66 and the communities historic association with that highway to enhance and showcase these attributes. There is a distinct difference.
In addition, they have utilized the resurgent interest in Route 66 as the means to resuscitate more than just historic districts with cafes, museums, galleries, gift shops, and stores. They have used it to create or rejuvenate parks, art districts with colorful murals, and attract light industry or the establishment of educational services.
A primary key to this transformation is the fact that these communities have visionary leadership that inspires and that fosters a unified sense of community and community purpose. Regardless of accomplishments and successful development, in the long term, factions and infighting coupled with a lack of visionary leadership will stifle or limit development leaving the community to wither on the vine. Spend a weekend in Tucumcari, New Mexico and the first impression is that this is a community on the upswing. Long abandoned properties are being given a new lease on life. Museums are opening. Colorful festivals attract large crowds. But if you delve deeper, if you spend time in the coffee shops and restaurants listening to the locals converse, if you venture beyond the main drag, it becomes painfully obvious that this is a town divided. Factions rule and leadership that builds cooperative partnerships seems lacking. As a result it is quite likely this city will never become the destination it could very well be.
In this the city of Tucumcari is not alone. Until quite recently my adopted hometown of Kingman, Arizona suffered from similar maladies and it shows. There are now, however, indications that the Route 66 International Festival may be turning the tide. Time will tell but at this juncture the unified show of support among civic and business leaders is unprecedented. The bottom line is this, the resurgent interest in iconic Route 66 represents an unparalleled opportunity for rural communities and even metropolitan areas. If a community will dare to dream, and unite behind leadership that can inspire transformation of the dream into a reality, the highway will enjoy a second century that is more exciting and dynamic than its first.