As 'Mother Road' Turns 90, Tulsa Hopes To Cash In On Route 66

Wednesday, July 6th 2016, 11:34 pm
By: News On 6

In a couple of months, Route 66 turns 90 years old. And here in Tulsa, there's a new push to save some businesses along the ‘Mother Road.’

Oklahoma is one of only eight states to have part of the historic road run through it.

Chicago’s famous Buckingham Fountain is the start of Route 66. From there, it’s southwest through Illinois, Missouri, a corner of Kansas, into Oklahoma, through Texas, New Mexico and Arizona before ending at the Pacific Ocean in California – the end of the road is an iconic sign at the landmark Santa Monica Pier.

In Tulsa, the road is being called one of our greatest assets, as 400 miles – the nation’s longest drivable stretch of Route 66 – cuts through Oklahoma and the heart of our city.

Old gas stations are now markets, bars and music venues; and auto service shops have been transformed into new businesses.

Route 66 historian, Michael Wallis, said, “What’s happening now is exactly what I've wanted to see all along.”

But, Wallis said Tulsa needs to keep the momentum going.

“The road should not be romanticized. It’s not just about nostalgia,” he said.

The long stretch of Americana has been underestimated, and only really kept alive, he said, by the foreign traveler; but, there’s finally a shift.

Wallis said, “And the proof is in the pudding if you look at the towns that have come back to life.”

Albuquerque is one of the up and coming success stories, similar to Tulsa.

A study on Route 66 shows Mother Road travelers spend $38 million a year. In the eight states it runs through, there are close to 2,000 jobs. And those driving it are referred to as Heritage Travelers - they stay longer and spend more money.

“Tourism is about three times a day – breakfast, lunch and dinner. And when you can put those together and cap it with a hotel stay, that’s when you get the big economic impact from tourism,” said Amy Webb with the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

But in Tulsa, the only way you actually know you're on Route 66 is by a few scattered way-finding signs and aging plaques built into sidewalks. That’s what many travelers say deter them from stopping at a certain place along the drive - lack of signage and marketing.

They want to find history and they want to find it in good shape.

Kaisa Barthuli with the National Park Service said, “They may seem invisible now, they may be vacant and may not have been in use for the last 30 years. A lot may not remember when it had life in it or when it was operating.”

Like the original bridge built across the river before Route 66 was an official road. Wallis believed there was potential for it; instead, it’s locked up, overgrown and crumbling away.

The city just announced the formation of a Route 66 commission; its goals are everything from marketing to supporting new business.

6/17/2016 Related Story: Tulsa Mayor Creates Commission To Encourage More Route 66 Traffic

J.L. Lewis, the former owner of Leon's Sports Bar, has a vision for an empty plot of land on the route - officially 11th Street in Tulsa.

"We see Route 66 as something new and fresh for Tulsa, and something that will give it a cool identity," he said.

The Fuel 66 Food Truck park project will convert an old building into a bar, space for up to six food trucks with patio seating around it, and outdoor movie screens.

Lewis said, "The business owners are here, and property owners are here, and if we can get something started it will give it some real momentum."

Obvious signs that the city is recognizing the value of something that has been here all along.

As for the Route 66 commission, the 15 members are supposed to be appointed and announced this month. The city approved a $200,000 annual budget for it.

The $20 million Route 66 experience, which will be located by Cyrus Avery Plaza, plans to break ground in early 2017.