Having spent much of his life championing Route 66 -- the historic, 2,448-mile highway that stretches from Chicago to Los Angeles -- author Michael Wallis takes an understandable delight in every development that raises the roadway's profile or contributes to its preservation.
And Wallis has a lot to smile about these days.
As one of three co-directors of the Route 66 Alliance, Wallis -- a native Missourian who made Tulsa his home many years ago -- is actively engaged in efforts to promote the road both locally and nationally. Those efforts seem to be paying off royally.
Having finally gotten all its paperwork in order, the Route 66 Alliance -- a national nonprofit foundation dedicated to preserving and supporting programs and projects that benefit the entire length of the highway -- was incorporated a few months ago in Oklahoma, with Tulsa serving as its headquarters. The organization has formed an affiliation with the Tulsa Community Foundation, Wallis said, and is actively engaged in fund raising.
Operating out of Wallis' home now, the alliance eventually will be housed in a new interpretative center--the Route 66 Experience--that will be built next to the Route 66 plaza at Southwest Boulevard and Riverside Drive, just west of downtown. As excited as Wallis is about that facility, he has even bigger dreams in mind.
"We're broadening our scope beyond Route 66," said Wallis, who in 1990 crafted perhaps the most authoritative book ever written about the highway, "Route 66: The Mother Road."
"Our primary goal is still the preservation and enhancement of Route 66, but we're trying to take it beyond that, too," he said. "We want to evolve Route 66 into a 'slab lab.' You know, Route 66 is my great linear village, but we want to make it a living laboratory for green energy."
What that means, Wallis said, is that the foundation will work to align the highway with such renewable energy concerns as electric cars, and hydrogen, wind and solar power. In July, the Route 66 Alliance endorsed the Green Roadway, billed as a set of patented solutions to produce renewable energy along roads, at a roll-out ceremony for the technologies in Santa Monica, Calif.
Wallis sees the foundation's eagerness to embrace environmentally friendly technology as a big plus for the Route 66 Alliance -- "It will fuel our coffers for fund raising," he said -- but he also sees it as a chance for the highway itself, which was decommissioned in 1985, to become relevant again.
"The road evolved at the dawn of the highway era and became a conduit for fossil fuels," he said, noting that at various times since its inception in 1926, it has served a variety of purposes. First, he said, it was the famed "Mother Road" during the Great Depression, helping millions of impoverished, dispossessed individuals from the Dust Bowl make a new start in California. During World War II, it became the "War Road," the highway that moved more troops and materials than any other roadway. And in the 1950s, before the interstate highway system came along to replace it, Route 66 was the artery of choice for millions of Americans on vacation, giving it an indelible stamp on the national consciousness and making it a pop culture icon.
"In its renaissance, it's rolling up its sleeves again," he said.
Wallis envisions Route 66 becoming home to a series of alternative energy filling stations. He said the alliance is considering 18 to 24 sites for the stations and is consulting with experts in the field before deciding on the locations.
"All of this was just presented recently in Flagstaff (Ariz.) at our annual rendezvous, which is an event that eventually will be held in Tulsa every year at the Route 66 Experience," he said. "It's playing very well, and we're very, very excited about it. This is not just bricks-and-mortar projects we're talking about, but beyond."
Another item on the alliance's agenda is the possible creation of a Route 66 national monument in California. The alliance has proposed calling it the Mother Road National Monument, and the project reportedly would be located east of Barstow and Twentynine Palms to Needles along the Colorado River.
As for the highway's main brick-and-mortar project, the Route 66 Experience in Tulsa, Wallis is increasingly impatient to see it become a reality. Those affiliated with the project -- which will be built with a combination of Vision 2025 funds, third-penny sales tax money and private funds -- have said the three-story project is not likely to open until around 2012. Wallis wants to hurry that process.
"Here's what I'd like to do," he said. "I'd like to raise enough money to get the building built before many people anticipate it being built."
But it's not as if progress isn't already taking place. Dennis Whittaker, a Tulsa city planner who has worked on the project since its inception in 2003, said the design work for the planned facility is moving ahead in two phases. The first, he said, is the programming of the design functions of the building itself, then determining the space needs for each of those functions, including the entry, the offices, the gift shop, etc.
"Then, we will take that and be able to do the second phase, which is what is the footprint and height of the building itself," he said.
Whittaker said that because V2025 tax funds are collected across Tulsa County, the process for funneling each municipality's portion of the money into its city budget, and then making that money available to a specific project, can be time consuming.
"It takes a while to get those funds transferred and get the contracts in place," Whittaker said, adding that the best estimate he could give for when a design contract might be in place would be two to three months.
"The actual planning of this, because it is an unusual facility and because it's so big, the design process will be a multi-year process," he said. "But we knew that all along. These are just the beginning steps you take. We've still got a lot of details to work out."
The project originally was estimated to cost $10 million, but Whittaker cautioned that figure could increase.
"That was a general estimate," he said. "At this end of everything, it's so hard to say, and we anticipate other money coming along and helping us. There will be private dollars involved, so there will be money other than public funds."
The facility itself is envisioned as a clearinghouse for all things Route 66 -- a series of computer-generated, hands-on attractions, along with historical archives, administrative offices, even a restaurant.
"My personal opinion is that it can't be too fancy, but it can't be too down home, either," Wallis said. "It should be a great place to have breakfast or lunch, but a place where you can have a nice dinner, too."
He hopes an arrangement can be reached for a local restaurateur to operate in the space.
"It won't be McDonald's," he said. "I think you can take that one to the bank, with all due respect to the golden arches."
He also envisions some sort of ground-level concession being operated through which visitors can purchase refreshments without having to patronize the restaurant.
In the meantime, Wallis said, the Route 66 Alliance continues to solidify its presence.
"We're gathering more and more force, and targeting people for our board," he said. "We're recruiting people from all kinds of disciplines--education, business, politics--so we're moving forward."
Wallis hopes to establish partnerships with three of Tulsa's institutions of higher learning -- the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma State University-Tulsa and Tulsa Community College -- to set up internships between those schools and the alliance, and even inject a bit of Route 66 into their curriculum.
Whittaker and Wallis also noted that progress continues to be made on Route 66 streetscaping projects in Tulsa's historic Red Fork area west of the Arkansas River.
Wallis doesn't conceal the sense of satisfaction he feels over each of those projects. For years, he was frustrated by his adopted hometown's unwillingness to take advantage of its special relationship with Route 66, 24 miles of which run through Tulsa County.
That's no longer the case.
"I'm pretty happy with what's going on in Tulsa--at last," he said.
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