The transformation of Route 66 commenced long before most of us were born. In February 1927, a group of visionary businessmen created the U.S. Highway 66 Association and launched a promotional campaign that marketed this highway as the Main Street of America.
As a foundation upon upon which to build this promotion, they had portions of the National Old Trails Highway. This pioneering highway established in 1912 followed the dust filled ruts of the historic trails that transformed the nation, especially in the southwest.
Today Route 66 is more time capsule than highway. However, it is not just a dusty time capsule where remnants from the era of the tail fin, the Edsel, and the station wagon are preserved.There is no need to turn your town into a cheap imitation of Disneyland. Preserved all along the Route 66 corridor are vestiges from centuries of American societal evolution and that needs to be the primary point of focus when evaluating ways your community can utilize the resurgent interest in Route 66 as a catalyst for development or redevelopment.
Think of your community as part of a rich and colorful tapestry, and Route 66 as the thread that ties it together. Take that analogy a step further and look at Route 66 as the thread that ties the past with the future.
Atlanta, Illinois utilizes the historic nature of the architecture in its small business district as a backdrop for an electric vehicle car show. Yukon, Oklahoma is the host city for the largest Czech festival held anywhere in America. Winslow utilized a song and the restoration of a condemned hotel to transform the city. Tombstone had Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp, and a gun fight near a corral that was over in the blink of an eye. Holbrook had Commodore Perry Owens, the Hash Knife outfit, and the Bucket of Blood Saloon. They also have one of two iconic Wigwam Motel’s on Route 66, the award winning Globetrotter Lodge, and the city serves as the gateway for the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest.
For years Holbrook, as with many communities along Route 66 in the desert southwest languished and faded under the desert sun. The tide, however, is turning. A major Route 66 event is now under development. What ensures this Route 66 themed celebration will be unique is the unprecedented partnership with the National Park Service that will provide enthusiasts an opportunity to tour sections of the double six that are not readily accessible. The city of Holbrook is tapping into unique attributes and resources, and tying them to Route 66. Cuba, Missouri translated its history into colorful murals and in the process transformed the city into a Route 66 destination. Lexington, Illinois transformed an abandoned section of highway bordered by a corn field into a time capsule, and in the process made the city a destination. Creative thinking, however, is but the first step. Step two is leadership, an individual with the vision of Elon Musk, the tough minded diplomatic tenacity of Teddy Roosevelt, and the hard driving determination of General Patton. Simply put, ideas are worth about ten cents a pound.Creative thinking and leadership, however, are still not enough to transform a community into a destination for travelers, for businesses owners, or families in search of a place to put down roots. The leader will need to be an individual who knows when to speak softly and when to use the proverbial big stick.With these components in place, a template for transformation can be completed and implemented. Ideas can be made manifest in a wide array of innovative projects. Remember, you don’t build a house by ordering trusses and lumber without first having a budget, financing, and a place to build. 1) Develop and enforce zoning regulations with a focus on the long term. Is it possible to utilize eminent domain regulation as a means to prevent demolition of an historically significant structure that is key to your long term vision as Albuquerque did with the El Vado Motel? 2) Is it possible to amend or create zoning regulations that allow for development of a carrot and stick approach to property renovation? As an example, notify property owners that their building represents a threat to public safety and that the cost of demolition will be passed on to them through direct collection or liens placed against other properties they may own. However, if they will secure the property from squatters and renovate the street facing facade the order for demolition will be rescinded. 3) Can funds be set aside to assist with this carrot and stick approach by providing matching funds grants for facade renovations? 4) Is it possible to provide tax incentives for renovations or for businesses relocating to the area?5) Can a partnership be developed between the chamber of commerce and the city for the funding of a goodwill ambassador to attend events and promote the city? 6) Can senior citizen volunteers be organized as a welcome wagon and can they be subsidized with a monthly coffee allowance? Imagine the reputation developed when visitors stop in a restaurant and have a friendly local buy them a cup of coffee. Imagine what this could do to spark a sense of community and community purpose!7) Are there opportunities for pooling promotional resources with neighboring communities? Can shared history be utilized to develop attractions with neighboring communities? Can something such as an old rail bed or abandoned highway be developed as bicycle or pedestrian trails linking communities? Can events be developed in conjunction with neighboring communities? 8) Museums are plentiful all along the Route 66 corridor. Can your community create a unique museum or attraction? Pontiac has the Pontiac-Oakland Museum that is now a destination unto itself. Elk City has the National Route 66 Museum that is coupled to a farm and ranch museum. How about a living history museum that includes a tour along a dirt track that served as the course for the National Old Trails Highway and Route 66 in a Model A Ford or where working cowboys brand cows or where Native American artisans work?9) Is it possible to involve the communities youth through city sanctioned beautification projects?10) Can the chamber of commerce sponsor contests that encourage service sector employees to be knowledgeable about area attractions and history? Dream. Share the dream. Inspire others to dream. Create partnerships. Work toward seeing the dream made manifest and continue the tradition of transformation that is the history of Route 66.