When it comes to utilizing tourism as a catalyst for economic development, and historic district revitalization, towns in the American southwest have a distinct advantage. And if those communities happen to be on Route 66, those opportunities are magnified exponentially, especially with the highways centennial fast approaching.
So, what do communities along this storied highwway need to do to capitalize on the Route 66 centennial?
After publication of The Grapes of Wrath in 1939, Route 66 was billed as the Mother Road. Prior to that, in 1927, the U.S. Highway 66 Association borrowed a slogan from a 1913 promotion for the National Old Trails Road, and began marketing Route 66 as the Main Street of America.
From its inception the highway signed with a double six has had tremendous promotion and publicity and as a result, Route 66 is one of the most iconic highways in America. Depending on which alignment is followed, the highway stretches for 2,448 miles from Chicago to Santa Monica. It cuts through the heartland of America as it passes through eight states.
Certified as a U.S. highway on November 11, 1926, Route 66 has morphed into a symbol of freedom, adventure and opportunity. For legions of international enthusiasts it has come to represent the quintessential American road trip.
As a result, in 2026, many states, communities, and organizations are already making plans to capitalize on the centennial. Promotion of special centennial events and activities, Facebook groups that are organizing centennial cruises, and an increasing focus of media on Route 66 indicate that this historic milestone will have a tremendous economic impact on communities along the highway corrdior.
The Route 66 Centennial Commission Act, signed into law by President Biden on December 23, 2020, established a 15-member commission from each of the eight Route 66 states to coordinate and promote the centennial celebration. The commission will also be tasked with assisting in the production of various materials, films and documentaries to chronicle the history, the culture, and legacy of Route 66.
What can communities along Route 66 do to capitalize on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? How can they use the centennial to attract more visitors, generate more revenue, to revitalize blighted historic business districts, and as a catalyst for the creation of long term economic development initiatives? Here are some suggestions base on successful projects and initiatives:
Enhance and revitalize Route 66 signage
One of the first projects approved by the Oklahoma Route 66 Centennial Commission was to improve and update the historic Route 66 signage throughout the state. Illinois has developed signage that clearly designates the course of Route 66, what years an alignment was in use, and what segments are designated bicycle corridors. Rich Dinkela, president of the Route 66 Association of Missouri pioneered the use of templates to paint the Route 66 shield directly on pavement, with the years of use.
Other states should follow suit and make sure their signs are visible, accurate and well-maintained. This will help drivers navigate the route more easily and safely, as well as create a more authentic and consistent experience.
Promote and participate, and develop, Route 66 events
Even though the centennial is still several years away, many events and activities are already being developed to celebrate the centennial. Other annual events, such as the AAA Route 66 Road Fest, have been developed to capitalize on the centennial.
Recognizing the economic potential of such events, in some communities tourism departments and organizers are creating festivals such as the Birthplace of Route 66 Festival in Springfield, Missouri that bolster historic district revitalization initiatives and support local businesses. Surprisingly some events, such as the Kingman 66 Fest, are being developed with plans to grow the festival into a major centennial celebration, but yet they are severed from existing events, and do not support historic district businesses.
A number of organizations are providing free event promotion to magnify marketing of these festivals. And at Jim Hinckley’s America, there is no charge for having an event promoted on our website. Communities should use events to foster development of a a sense of community. And to successfully market an event, promotion should commence at least 18 months in advance. Marketing should be developed using community tourism websites and social media network.
These promotions should also be developed as a cooperative partnership linked with Route 66 associations and groups. And if a community has a personage with name recognition, their inclusion with personalize marketing initiatives. Marketing should also be developed as a collaboration with nearby communities and organizations to create regional or thematic events that showcase their unique area attractions and stories.
Preserve and showcase Route 66 landmarks
Route 66 is rich with historic landmarks, such as motels, diners, gas stations, museums, bridges, murals and sculptures. But there are also natural or scenic atractions, and historic sites that predate Route 66.
These landmarks not only tell the story of Route 66, but also reflect the unique culture and identity of each community. Communities should preserve and restore these landmarks as much as possible. These can be highlighted on maps, brochures and in projects such as the narrated self gudied tour in Kingman, Arizona developed by Kingman Main Street.
They should also seek recognition from national or state historic preservation programs or agencies, such as the National Park Service Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program or the National Historic Route 66 Federation.
Other Points to Consider
– Develop and diversify Route 66 attractions. While preserving the past is important, communities should also look to the future and develop new attractions that appeal to modern travelers. An example would be the Historic Electric Vehicle Association museum and conference center being developed in Kingman, Arizona.
These attractions could include outdoor recreation, arts and crafts, local cuisine, craft beer and wine, live music, sports or wellness. Communities should also diversify their offerings to cater to different segments of visitors, such as families, couples, seniors or international tourists. They should also leverage their existing assets and resources, such as natural scenery, cultural diversity or historical significance.
– Connect and network with Route 66 stakeholders. This is crucial.
Communities along Route 66 are not alone in their efforts to capitalize on the centennial. There are many other stakeholders who share their interests and goals, such as state travel and tourism offices, Route 66 associations, chambers of commerce, historical societies, museums, businesses and media outlets. Communities should connect and network with these stakeholders to exchange information, ideas and best practices. They should also join or support national or regional initiatives that aim to promote and preserve Route 66, such as the Route 66 Road Ahead Partnership or the Oklahoma Route 66 Centennial Commission.
The Route 66 centennial is a great opportunity for communities along the Main Street of America to showcase their history, culture and charm to a wider audience. By enhancing their signage, promoting their events, preserving their landmarks, developing their attractions and connecting with their stakeholders, they can make the most of this occasion and ensure that Route 66 remains a vibrant and vital part of America for generations to come.