Bill Thomas remembers the response when he suggested developing the Logan County village of Atlanta, population 1,635, as a Route 66 tourist attraction.
“Fifteen years ago, that was laughed at,” Thomas said.
Nobody’s laughing today.
Communities throughout central Illinois — from Atlanta to Williamsville to Litchfield — are benefiting from efforts to market their ties to the famous road — and to attract some of the thousands of visitors who trace its path from Chicago to the West Coast each year.
In Atlanta, sales tax revenue jumped 43 percent last year during the peak tourism season of April to August compared to four years ago, before the opening of the Atlanta Museum and the reopening of the 1930s-era Palms Grill Cafe. Both buildings in the 100 block of S.W. Arch St. are owned by the Atlanta Public Library.
The two endeavors were Atlanta’s first efforts to generate revenue from the steady trickle of Route 66 travelers who drive through the town every summer.
Atlanta had long been a favorite stop with its library packed with memorabilia, a 19-foot-tall fiberglass Paul Bunyan-like statue holding a super-sized hot dog and advertising murals painted on the brick buildings lining Route 66.
Today, visitors can take a walking tour of the community, eat at the Palms Grill and trace where their corn flakes come from at the J.H. Hawes Grain Elevator Museum, housed in a restored 1904 grain elevator.
The increase in foot traffic led to the opening of two new businesses: the Route 66 Gift Shop, which sells memorabilia and vintage items, and the Arch Street Artisan Shop.
“The city really got behind this push,” said Mayor Fred Finchum, who served on the village board when Thomas first proposed the idea. “It took a while to wrap our minds around it. But we thought, what we’re doing to try to bring people in isn’t working.
“What else can we do?”
Atlanta leaders are still asking that question, but today they are looking at historical aspects of their community tourists might be drawn to.
Packaging the past
This spring, Atlanta will begin preparing a walking trail and signage around a quarter-mile of the original Route 66 pavement north of town. Officials also plan to open a coal-mining exhibit next to the grain elevator museum.
The community also has purchased an 1891 residence that served as a rooming house for Route 66 travelers in the 1940s, before motels were readily available. The city plans to offer the same service to modern travelers, although the Atlanta Route 66 Rooming House isn’t expected to open until 2013.
Copyright 2012 The State Journal-Register.