Ride The Wave or Drown

Route 66 historian and author Jim Hinckley

Route 66 historian and author Jim Hinckley

Why do some communities along Route 66 thrive and others continue the decline precipitated by the highway’s bypass? Why is Pontiac or Cuba a destination for legions of international travelers as well as entrepreneurs? In regards to tourism development, why do some communities such as Kingman or Tucumcari move forward at glacial speeds or even stagnate even though their tourism related assets far outnumber those found in Pontiac or Cuba? Why is Seligman a beehive of activity but Ash Fork flirts with becoming a ghost town?

On numerous occasions I have addressed these thoughts and related issues in blog posts. In recent years I have also made numerous presentations on the subject in various communities and assisted with the development and marketing of events. However, over the course of the past year, my involvement with tourism as a catalyst for economic development has broadened. It has included a stint as a marketing development consultant for Ramada Kingman, a role I now play for Grand Canyon Caverns, and some representative work for the City of Kingman. I am also involved with the innovative Promote Kingman initiative, and proudly serve on the economic development committee for the Route 66 Road Ahead Partnership, formerly the Route 66: Road Ahead Initiative steering committee.

Does this make me an expert on community development, harnessing the Route 66 renaissance as a catalyst for economic development, or the problems rural communities along the Route 66 corridor face? Not by a long shot. On this subject I have to defer to folks like Bob Russell, mayor of Pontiac, who has the applied knowledge derived from years spent in the trenches. However, my work as well as intimate involvement and association with tour company owners, Route 66 enthusiasts, business owners, community organizers such as Larry Clonts in Shamrock, tourism directors, economic development directors, and opinionated armchair quarterbacks provides me with a unique perspective about the Route 66 renaissance.

A little item I am quite proud of, a presentation made by the German Route 66 Association.

Now, before delving deeper into this subject I need to make sure there are no misunderstandings. It is not my intent to cast aspersions, make accusations, or in general, throw anyone under the bus. What I am hoping to do is encourage constructive dialogue and move beyond the divisive rhetoric and name calling that often dominates these discussions. To that end I will be dedicating my weekly Facebook live program to this subject on Friday. For details check out the events section of the Jim Hinckley’s America Facebook page. Please, submit ideas or questions before hand and an attempt will be made to answer them. Need another reason to tune in? How about a chance to win a copy of my latest book Route 66: America’s Longest Small Town ?

The towns along the Route 66 corridor are quite unique. In most communities a bypass, realignment, or closure of a principle highway or railroad line is a death knell. However, in many of the towns and villages along Route 66, this was merely a setback as this is the most famous highway in the world even though it officially ceased to exist more than three decades ago. Additionally, these communities have another advantage, and that is the strength of the international Route 66 community and the resultant availability of partnerships.

So, what is the problem? Why isn’t the entire Route 66 corridor a neon lit wonderland, an incredible string of boundless opportunity for the entrepreneur with vision and ambition? Why isn’t each and every community along this highway a place filled with a spirit of infectious enthusiasm and excitement?

Well, for what it is worth, I attribute this to a couple of primary points. The first affects many communities regardless if they are on Route 66, US 6, or Highway 101, and that there is a disconnect when it comes to linking tourism with economic development. Bill Thomas in Atlanta, Illinois puts it this way – not all economic development is tourism, but all tourism is economic development. Surprisingly, few towns have this perspective. Personally I have trouble understanding this. My perspective is that if you transform a community into a place people want to visit, the process involved with this transformation will make it a place people want to live, to retire, to open businesses, and to raise a family.

Many arguments about the Route 66 renaissance, how best to harness it for community revitalization and what is holding it back, center on an obscure claim about personality cults and how they somehow have the power to control the course of development in dozens of towns along a 2,200-mile highway corridor. The individuals that make these claims usually also enshrine the power of grassroots initiatives and attribute the power of the personality cult to any attempt at the creation of a national organization similar to the US Highway 66 Association established in 1927. This, too, puzzles me.

Grassroots initiatives have and will always be the foundation of the Route 66 renaissance. However, the cornerstone for those grassroots initiatives are the personalities, the larger than life people who are the pioneers of the renaissance or the leaders capable of developing a sense of community and community purpose.

There were grassroots initiatives in 1927. However, it took a national organization to transform Route 66 from a highway into what it is today, an internationally recognized icon. The power of that national organization came in the creation of a functioning network of grassroots initiatives.

With this said, the next issue that hinders or prevents a town from becoming a destination for Route 66 enthusiasts, and subsequently for people looking for a place to live that is possessed of vibrancy and a sense of community, is multifaceted. It is a failure to understand the Route 66 renaissance or the nature of the Route 66 community. Subsequently there is an ignorance about the almost unlimited opportunity for partnership with other communities or the power of available pooled resource marketing.

Linked with this is the related issue of assets. If community leaders do not understand what is driving the Route 66 renaissance, they can not fully catalog assets available for development, and that includes people.

Route 66 communities are truly unique. They face rather interesting and occasionally daunting challenges, but this is balanced by the extraordinary opportunities they have resultant of an association with the most famous highway in the world.

Okay, now, what are your thoughts? How best to move forward, as a community? How do we ensure that the essence of the Route 66 experience survives to the centennial and beyond, and how do we ensure its relevancy for future generations? Would you care to share your thoughts, ideas, and suggestions?

As a final item, once I figure it out, I am adding a PayPal tip jar. If you feel led to make a donation to the storyteller in chief, thank you. If you choose to simply offer support and encouragement with comments as well as the sharing of the blog with friends, thank you. And if you’re a business owner or community leader that is looking for a marketing opportunity that is as unique as Route 66, drop me a note. The Promote Kingman initiative has a need for sponsors, and some very big plans for the future.