Tulsa has never realized the full economic development and tourism potential from its 24 miles of historic Route 66.
So Councilor Blake Ewing is creating a task force to help the city embrace the opportunities that come from its place along the Mother Road.
“There’s Route 66 travel maps that bypass Tulsa,” he said with frustration. “Motorists hop on Interstate 44 at Catoosa to cut through the city and then reconnect with Route 66 from there.”
Many leaders have championed Arkansas River development in recent years, with Route 66 (tracking along on 11th Street) falling by the wayside, Ewing said.
“I’m not trying to usurp river momentum,” he said. “I’m excited about that, too. But to me, this is lower-hanging fruit. It’s here and it’s underutilized. We don’t have to put water in it to be successful.”
Creating a scene: The idea behind the task force, which would include Route 66 stakeholders, such as University of Tulsa, Hillcrest Medical Center, Bama Pie officials and neighborhood leaders, as well as city officials, is to look for ways to reinvigorate the pathway.
Some ideas include creating tax increment financing districts along Route 66 to help spur development, with the taxes generated being invested in improvements, and looking for federal Brownfield grants to clean up some of the vacant, dilapidated structures, Ewing said.
The councilor also envisions a fund being established for the city or the Tulsa Development Authority to purchase neglected properties and turn them into meeting locations for car clubs until they can be resold for commercial purposes.
Ewing said he also would like to encourage businesses along Route 66 to upgrade their signs to sleek neon versions to create a vibe.
This could be done by possibly creating a grant program to help business owners pay for the difference between a regular backlit sign and a neon version. Sign ordinance changes likely would be needed.
“Businesses will respond to these kinds of gestures,” he said. “When you add it all together, you create a scene that people want to be a part of.”
Vision 2025 investment: Route 66 hasn’t been completely ignored. In Tulsa County’s 2003 Vision 2025 package, $15 million was set aside for various improvements tied to a Route 66 master plan.
Completed so far are renovations to the Cyrus Avery Memorial Bridge – the former 11th Street Bridge – and the Cyrus Avery Centennial Plaza and skywalk, at the east end of the bridge.
Avery was the former Tulsa County commissioner who is known as the father of the Mother Road because he lobbied Congress in 1926 to make it a 2,450-mile national highway that runs from Chicago to Los Angeles.
Some streetscaping projects along the route also have been finished.
Still to come is the Route 66 Interpretive Center at the plaza by Southwest Boulevard and Riverside Drive.
The museum has $2 million from Vision 2025 and $5 million from the 2006 third-penny sales tax package tied to it but is expected to need more in private funding. A feasibility study is under way, city planner Dennis Whitaker said.
A streetscaping project on 11th Street between 89th East Avenue to Garnett Road will soon begin.
It will include a kiosk at the intersection of 11th Street and Mingo Road that will tell the story of motor courts and how they evolved, along with other facets of Route 66 history, and wayfinding signs directing traffic.
Also this year, two Route 66 gateways will be built – one on the east side and one on the west side of Tulsa’s stretch – and a larger-than-life bronze sculpture will be installed at the plaza.
The sculpture, titled “East Meets West,” will depict the Avery family riding in a Model-T as they encounter a horse-drawn carriage on its way from the west Tulsa oil fields.
Whitaker, who will be part of the new task force, said that having public and private partners at the table will help take the master plan to the next level.
For all of Tulsa: The revitalization of Route 66 would not only benefit the five council districts it passes through, Ewing said, but also it would benefit the entire city by being an economic development and tourism engine.
Ewing owns numerous businesses in downtown’s Blue Dome District, including Joe Momma’s Pizza, Back Alley Blues & BBQ, Boomtown Tees and The Max Retropub.
His closest endeavor to Route 66 is The Phoenix Cafe, a coffee shop and used bookstore that will open at Sixth Street and Peoria Avenue soon.
Ewing said he would be considering his own Route 66 business investment if not for his role as a councilor in the task force.
“I don’t want my pursuing a personal development to compromise what I see as a much bigger thing for Tulsa,” he said. “But I see the potential, and I know other developers will, too.”
Author and historian Michael Wallis took Tulsa to task in his 1990 book “Route 66: The Mother Road” for not capitalizing on its Route 66 heritage.
“Tulsa gets much higher marks now,” he said. “There have been little victories here and there.”
But Ewing’s task force is exactly what’s needed to see the effort through.
“I’m usually dubious about politicians, but he’s standing behind his words and I’m excited,” Wallis said.
The lure of traveling Route 66 by car is powerful to domestic and foreign tourists and continues to grow, he said.
“A lot of people falsely think it’s about pure nostalgia,” he said.
But it’s much more than poodle skirts, cheeseburgers, James Dean and ’57 Chevys. Those are just a small slice of the pie.
“This is the classic American road trip, from the land of Lincoln to Hollywood. They get all the variance of terrain, culture, cuisine and music. Tulsa needs to stake its claim as part of that.”
By BRIAN BARBER World Staff Writer