By Linda Kor
There’s no more iconic road trip in the U.S. than the one taken along historic Route 66. Although there are only remnants remaining of what was once the most heavily traveled highway in the country, the attraction to the kitschy aspects that remain along the still existing portions of the road hold an undeniable attraction for travelers from around the globe.
A study conducted by Rutgers University, in collaboration with the National Park Service,the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program and the World Monuments Fund (WMF), adds credibility to the economic viability that still exists along The Mother Road.
Among the findings of the study are that tourists spend $38 million per year in communities along Route 66, that preservation through revitalization programs and museums add some $94 million in annual investments and economic activities directly related to the route add some $127 million annually to the gross domestic product, including 2,400 new jobs
On a local level, one way to gauge the number of tourists traveling through Holbrook along The Mother Road is the number of visitors stopping in at the Historic Navajo Courthouse, which doubles as a museum and visitors center.
Dawn Sawyer, who assists visitors at the courthouse, noted that the number of visitors to the courthouse has already doubled over the last month. “We had about 500 visitors last month and now in March, we’ve had about 1,000,” she said.
Over the past three weeks the museum has averaged about 100 visitors on Saturdays and Sundays. While most businesses remain open on Saturday, on Sunday most locally owned businesses are closed, leaving visitors with limited experiences within the city.
“We had a visitor come through here awhile back who actually owns a restaurant inside of Disneyland that was geared towards the Cars movie. He was taking the trip along Route 66 to get a feel for what type of food to offer at his restaurant. We get a lot of different types of people here,” related Sawyer.
While visitors enjoy the unique authenticity of Route 66, creating a thriving and revitalized Mother Road has yet to take place in Holbrook even though the two main streets of the community are along the route. Kathleen Smith, the city’s community events coordinator, is hoping that will change in the near future with the development of a Route 66 Festival in August, a new Holbrook app for handheld devices, and by providing support and encouragement to existing and potential new businesses.
“We want to create that link between technology and history to attract a bigger audience and promote development along Route 66 in Holbrook,” explained Smith.
Winslow has been gradually revitalizing its stretch of The Mother Road and has added a number of new businesses along the route in the last year, including Dar’s Route 66 Diner, Route 66 Fizz’ n Cream, Los Maria’s Restaurant, Arizona 66 Trading Company and two galleries, Akoshilláa Sheila! and Arizona Indian Art.
A good motivator to open business along Route 66 may have been measures taken by the city to invest in an infrastructure that promotes the aesthetics of the route with new sidewalks, lighting and a large Route 66 emblem on the street at the intersection of Second Street and Kinsley Avenue.
East of Holbrook, the Hopi Travel Plaza is also working on plans to turn the plaza into a Route 66 themed location.
“I’d like to have it where when you walk in the door you’re starting in Chicago and as you go through the plaza you’re in effect making your way to the Santa Monica Pier,” explained General Manager Ron Scheuerman, referring to the layout of the planned decor.
Last November the WMF held a strategic roundtable event entitled The Road Ahead at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim, Calif. Both Smith and Scheuerman to attended, and Allan Affeldt, owner of La Posada Hotel in Winslow, was one of the speakers. The roundtable explored the sustainability of the highway as a cultural and recreational venue, and an economic engine for the eight states the route passes through.
The Rutgers study was the main topic of discussion, with one of the statistics showing that the median age of the Route 66 visitor is 55. The findings led the groups at the roundtable, which included representatives from most communities along the route, to the discussion of finding a way to continue the viability of Route 66 by appealing to a new generation of visitors through a new outlook and the use of modern technology.
Smith came away from the event with new inspiration for promoting Route 66 and, in turn, the city.
“The Route 66 event we’re hosting in August will have the theme It Ain’t Your Mother’s Road Anymore. We want to promote Holbrook as something unique from other towns along the route,” she said. The objective is to reach out to a younger generation of travelers in hopes of building new interest while holding on to the traditional nostalgia traveler.
The need to draw as many travelers as possible of every age is supported by more study results showing that as far as spending habits, on average a visitor along the route will spend $1,500 to $2,000 during five days of travel. The obvious goal is to have that money spent locally.
In order to involve local business owners and community members, Smith has organized a workshop to be held on Tuesday and Wednesday, April 29 and 30, at Northland Pioneer College to discuss the promotion of Route 66 in Holbrook. “This is something everyone is welcomed to participate in. People who travel Route 66 are going after the nostalgia trip and right now that group is the baby boomers, so we need to prepare for that,” she said.
Another aspect of the study notes that restored Route 66-themed motels, restaurants and gift shops may not have high-dollar business volume, but they anchor the downtown in many small communities and change the perceived image of a place from a dowager town abandoned by the interstate to a community with a Route 66-linked past and future.
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By Linda Kor