You can’t help but feel sorrow for the young man
that squanders his inheritance and becomes a derelict living on the street, the talented artist that in the depths of alcoholism trades works of art for the next drink, or the whiz kid in school that pursues a life of crime instead of grades in college. There is something heart wrenching about the person who trades unlimited potential and opportunity for pursuit of self destruction, or short term gain. Compounding the tragedy are the people affected by the downward spiral. This analogy is never far from my mind when trying to understand why some communities succeed and others fail or languish as I prepare to speak on economic development.
How does a community with limited or few resources become a destination for travelers and business owners, and a community with boundless opportunity languish? In Arizona, Seligman has flourished in the era of Route 66 renaissance and Ash Fork withered. Why?
For more than ninety years Kingman, Arizona has been proclaimed a community with a bright and promising future. Still, even though there has been slow and steady growth, that community has largely been eclipsed by its neighbors to the west, relatively recent additions to the Arizona landscape. This is in spite of the fact that the climate in Kingman is more hospitable. Additionally, Kingman, unlike Bullhead City or Lake Havasu City, is a hub for interstate commerce, highway as well as rail, is centrally located to a staggering array of diverse all season attractions, has an industrial park that could be the envy of any community in the country, and an historic business district with tangible links to more than 100 years of film and celebrity association. As a bonus, Kingman was forever linked with Route 66 in the hit song about that highway recorded by Nat King Cole in 1946.
For just a moment consider a few of Kingman’s assets. Let’s start with the twelve month tourism season. Then, within a radius of sixty miles, there is the Grand Canyon, Grand Canyon Caverns, opportunities to partner with neighboring communities and offer white water rafting as well as Native America cultural history, more than 100 miles of scenic Route 66, the Colorado River, Hualapai Mountain Park, Havasu National Wildlife Refuge, wineries, award winning microbreweries, one of the best mountain bike trail systems in Arizona, the world’s only electric vehicle museum, an extensive film and celebrity history, a railroad history, WWII and aviation history, and critically acclaimed museums.
Tourism is but one component in building a long term economic development plan. As Bob Russell, mayor of Pontiac, Illinois, a community that has established a new standard in revitalization and development, says, “It is important to note, however, tourism without positive economic development does not work. It has to result in economic development to be sustainable.”
Now, consider one of the communities primary assets, the industrial park. Created from a former military air base this incredible resource has an internal rail system recently modernized and upgraded by Patriot Rail, and it is located on a main east west rail line. Additionally, there is I-40, and soon, I-11.
When evaluating just the tourism potential, and the industrial park, the question must be asked. Why isn’t Kingman a major destination for tourists, for potential business owners, and for families?
It isn’t because the community, especially at the grassroots level, lacks passion. Opposition from an entrenched faction with a captive public bully pulpit have been largely negated by the Route 66 Association of Kingman that has slowly but steadily forged alliances with business and property owners, as well as the city, and worked to transform the historic business district and Route 66 corridor into a destination. Photo op signage, restored neon signage, and public art projects are some of the most notable endeavors.
The Promote Kingman initiative, through video, social media, and educational programs has worked diligently to “create a community of the future, one partnership at a time.” The recently established Kingman Progressive Alliance for Positive Change has made remarkable strides in fostering community awareness. The Route 66 Cruizers is quick to assist with event development and provide charitable services. The Kingman Center for the Arts, another newly formed organization, has made tremendous contributions in forging a sense of community, and contributing to the historic business district renaissance. The Arizona Main Street initiative is another manifestation of a passionate grassroots movement.
In stark contrast to the vibrant grassroots initiatives, and the young Turk entrepreneurs opening businesses in the historic business district or running for public office are the abandoned projects that once had such potential, glaring manifestations of apathy, and people who simply never learned how to play well with others.
The Route 66 Walk of Fame, a brilliant low budget project that generated revenue, and international media attention, became a destination in itself and fostered foot traffic along the Route 66 corridor was abandoned. This in spite of offers of assistance, including financial, from throughout the world.
Development of the Route 66 Electric Vehicle Museum, the only museum of its kind in the world, has languished. With the exception of the annual Route 66 Fun Run, the state Route 66 association headquartered in Kingman has done little in regards to partnering with local organizations such as the Route 66 Association of Kingman on development of projects. The industrial park, is at best, stagnant. Promotional assets are undervalued and underutilized.
As I prepare a series of presentations on heritage tourism and its role in sustainable economic development, it is impossible for thoughts to not turn toward my adopted home town, and its long history of flirting with fame and fortune. In turn, these thoughts inspire reflection on my long history of jousting at windmills in Kingman. Though I am inspired by the passion of a new generation of grassroots organizers, my optimism is guarded. Time and again I have watched inspired and ambitious initiatives run aground, especially when the focus is on the symptoms, not the problem.