It was an era of hand crank telephones, Model A Fords, and unprecedented economic collapse. The onslaught of the Dust Bowl that would transform families into refugees and prosperous communities into ghost towns was worsening. In 1931 more than 2,200 banks were shuttered and tens of thousands of people lost their savings, their homes, and their businesses. By January of 1932, unemployment had reached 40% in Michigan, and entire families were freezing to death or dying of starvation.
It was against this bleak and hopeless backdrop that Cyrus Avery and the visionaries of the U.S. Highway 66 Association campaigned for the highways paving. They were also fostering development of tourism marketing campaigns as they realized the economic importance of tourism, especially in struggling rural communities. Their first campaign commenced in 1927 with the branding of US 66 as the Main Street of America. In 1931 the association held a convention in Elk City, Oklahoma and the number of attendees was counted in the tens of thousands. The association was quick to seize upon the opportunity that was the 1932 Summer Olympics that were to be held in Los Angeles, and on July 16 of that year an advertisement appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, inviting Americans to travel the “Great Diagonal Highway” to the games. In spite of the harsh economic conditions, within a week, the Association’s office in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was overwhelmed with requests for information about Route 66, Los Angeles, and the Olympics.
Fast forward to the modern era. Tourism, especially with a Route 66 component, still represents an incredible economic opportunity. That can be exponentially magnified if it is linked to a communities unique attributes such as cultural or heritage sites, experiential opportunities, or ecotourism activities such as mountain biking. With the Route 66 centennial fast approaching, a community that taps into this historic event NOW can reap tremendous rewards all the way to 2026 and beyond.
Surprisingly, only a few communities have tapped into the international fascination with Route 66, and most of these have been content with simply letting the tourists come to them rather actively enticing them. A very rare number of Route 66 communities have managed to sell everything on the hog including the squeal and as a result, have been transformed into destinations. More often than not the marketing of the city as a destination, as a Route 66 community with an array of attractions, is anemic at best, even with a sizable budget. Grass roots initiatives operating behind the scenes become the driving force in towns such as this. This is the case with my adopted hometown of Kingman, Arizona.
Grassroots initiatives have been been the driving force behind the historic district renaissance. And now the city is beginning to assist rather than hinder. After the city’s tourism department failed to capitalize or even develop the Route 66 Walk of Fame that showed such promise, grassroots initiatives spearheaded by the Route 66 Association of Kingman took the lead in honoring the people that have played a key role in the transformation from highway to icon. When the city’s tourism department neglected to build on opportunities derived from initiatives that fostered development of a working relationship with international Route 66 associations, business owners and community leaders launched the Kingman Promotional Initiative. When the city’s tourism office chose to forego receptions for tour groups, media and Route 66 associations representatives, cooperative partnerships were formed to fill the void.
It was the study of the original US Highway 66 Association and their marketing campaigns, and my involvement with these grassroots initiatives in Kingman that led to the development of community education programs as a pilot project for Mohave Community College. And it was these classes which led to the development of a new presentation, Route 66 Dollars & Cents, a condensed version of the college program.
This October, I will be taking the show on the road. I am anxious to share lessons learned, to provide incentive and tools for building strong, effective grassroots initiatives that overcome apathy and complacency, and that foster development of cooperative partnerships. If this program is of interest to your organization or your community, please drop me a note as the travel schedule is being planned at this time.
I will close this out with a few points to ponder. Every community has marketable assets. If you make a community a place that people will want to visit, you make it a place where they will want to live, to raise families, to retire and to open businesses. Apathy, complacency and incompetence can trump a handful of assets. Passionate people armed with knowledge, partners, and leaders with vision can transform a community.