KINGMAN - Kingman's future could be shaped by the upcoming International Route 66 Festival that will transform the city into a tourist destination for the weekend and show the world what this desert town has to offer, festival organizers said.
The festival takes place Aug. 14-17 with a slate of activities including a conference with Route 66 authors, artists and collectors; movies featuring scenes from Route 66; a special edition of Kingman's Chillin' on Beale Street car show; an electric car show; live music; golf and bowling tournaments; and tours of Desert Diamond Distillery.
While nobody has precise attendance numbers, previous Route 66 festivals have drawn anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 visitors to cities such as Springfield, Ill.; Victorville, Calif.; and Galena, Kan. More than 10,000 attended last year's festival in Joplin, Mo.
Arizona Route 66 Association held a festival in Kingman in 2002, but that was before the Route 66 renaissance really caught fire. What started out as a Route 66 roadie convention in the 1990s has grown into somewhat of a cult gathering.
"This thing is getting out of control," said Jim Hinckley, Kingman's Route 66 ambassador and author of a dozen books about the Mother Road. "It's like a tent revival. It's a living, breathing time capsule with an overlay of Disneyland."
The historic 2,200-mile highway attracts classic car enthusiasts and motorcycle adventurists yearning to motor west, history buffs who want to trace the route taken by farmers fleeing the Dust Bowl and foreigners who can't speak much English but know all the words to the Route 66 song written by Bobby Troup in 1946.
Other towns along Route 66 have been slow to cash in on tourism business, but those that have gotten on board have seen astounding results, Hinckley said.
A 2011 economic study conducted by Rutgers University for the National Park Service estimated a minimum of $38 million in annual tourism spending in eight states along Route 66, $67 million in Main Street spending and $27 million in museum spending.
Accounting for multiplier effects, total annual economic impact from Route 66 spending adds up to more than 2,400 jobs, $90 million in personal income, $262 million in overall output, $127 million in Gross Domestic Product and $37 million in tax revenues.
From a micro-economic perspective, what does Route 66 spending mean to the immediate community in which it takes place?
"It is on this contextual local level that Route 66 economic activities have their greatest impact," the Rutgers report stated. "As documented time and time again in 25 case studies, in many smaller communities along Route 66, tourism related to the Mother Road is one of the most significant, if not the only economic game in town."
A sea change in tourism has occurred in many of those towns.
Motels, hamburger joints and gift shops that fell into oblivion after interstate highways bypassed their business are now seeing significant increases in spending by tourists.
Abandoned gas stations have been converted into neighborhood restaurants. Goodwill rebranded its retail store in Tulsa, Okla., as Route 66 Goodwill to double as a souvenir shop.
Sam and Monica Frisher bought and refurbished El Trovatore Motel, built in 1939 in Kingman, and turned it from apartments into a Route 66-themed motel. They restored the neon signs and spent $7,000 on murals painted by Kingman artist David Stem.
The Arizona town of Holbrook has aggressively marketed Route 66 with a number of new business popping up along the main corridor and a festival of its own preceding the International Route 66 Festival in Kingman. Albuquerque is also working hard on a Route 66 rejuvenation plan.
Steve Wagner, a local Realtor, said Route 66 is a huge part of Kingman's economic structure and the city needs to recognize the potential stream of income from the highway's popularity. Kingman is located at the heart of the longest (160 miles) uninterrupted stretch of Route 66.
"Our mindset doesn't reflect this all the time," Wagner said. "We need to take care of every opportunity we can. It's just planting the seed. If we don't open the door and let people know it's available, they're not going to come."
He hears about how the city is hurting financially and needs to raise more money, yet the city owns five acres of vacant land on Route 66 next to Kingman Park that could be sold for retail development instead of building a proposed fire station.
"We need fire stations, but do we need them in a location where the highest and best use of that property could be some income-producing retail businesses for the city? " Wagner asked. "We need to be forward-thinking and make the most of our opportunities."
Proceeds from selling the Route 66 land could pay for property elsewhere and perhaps even subsidize construction of the fire station, the real estate agent said. The city needs to take the lead in promoting economic development so the outside world notices, he said.
"We have a downtown that's a perfect draw, but it hasn't been polished. It's a diamond in the rough. It's got some of the best restaurants," Wagner said.
The mystique of Route 66 hasn't been lost on savvy entrepreneurs.
Several motels along the highway have been purchased and are in the midst of renovation. The Frontier Motel in Truxton was purchased by a New Zealand hotel owner and tour operator and is under reconstruction. A radio station in Christchurch, New Zealand, held a Route 66 trivia contest with a grand prize of a trip for two to the Kingman festival.
Wagner said the shuttered Kingman Club is in escrow with an Australian buyer.
The International Route 66 Festival portends an economic boon for Kingman, said Dora Manley, director of the festival. People are going to be staying at local motels, eating at restaurants and drinking at bars, buying gas and shopping for gifts and souvenirs.
Tax revenue alone will justify the $20,000 marketing budget allocated by the Tourism Development Commission, she said.
"We're showing people Kingman is a destination, not a stop-off for gas," Manley said. "We have a lot to offer. If we can get people to come down the highway, not just for the international festival, but maybe a Kingman Route 66 Fun Run every year, maybe that will grow and have new interest."
The list of Route 66 associations goes beyond the eight states. Hinckley said he's met with groups from Australia, Hungary and Holland in preparation for the festival in Kingman.
"What I want to see is a unified sense of community and what this festival means to the future of Kingman," Hinckley said. "If we put together an electric vehicle show, what potential does that have for us? We have the groundwork for an annual electric vehicle convention. Dare to imagine what this could mean for long-term development."
Route 66 authorities who plan on attending the festival include Ron Hart from Route 66 Chamber of Commerce; Angel Delgadillo from Seligman; Dave Knudsen of the National Historic Route 66 Federation; and Buz Waldmire, representing his deceased brother, Bob, whose artwork will be on display at TNT Auto Center.
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