A long-envisioned plan to build a new interpretative center on the site of the Route 66 Cyrus Avery Memorial Plaza just west of downtown is finally moving forward, thanks to an infusion of Vision 2025 funds and the signing of a number of agreements between city and county officials, according to the city planner working on the project.
"It's the most vital thing to begin, next to seeing construction occur," city planner Dennis Whitaker said. "It's a very big step, something we've been waiting for and been excited about for a while."
Whitaker said the intergovernmental agreements recently signed by county commissioners and Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr. and the release of $2.5 million in Vision 2025 funds earmarked for the project and other Route 66-related items mean organizers can now enter into a contract with the Chicago-based consulting firm PSA Dewberry. That contracting process should take anywhere from 30 to 60 days, he said.
Whitaker said design work would proceed in two phases from this point.
"Phase I of the design is how are we going to use the facility -- the static displays, the restaurant, the offices," he said, adding that an analysis of the feasibility of various features will be a part of that. "Phase II of the design would be getting the site plan and the preliminary construction documents together and going forward from there."
That phase will include working out the building's actual footprint and height. Whitaker said planners are trying to be careful to come up with something that is appropriate for that section of the river.
"We want to take everything into consideration," he said. "We're really going forward from the outside looking in."
The project, which has been in the planning stages since 2003, originally carried a price tag of $10 million.
"That's just in the ballpark still," Whitaker said. "Until we get through the feasibility study and the second phase of the design process, it's hard to come up with a cost estimate without construction drawings."
The building will be paid for by a combination of V2025 funds, third-penny sales tax money and private funds.
The facility is envisioned as a clearinghouse for all things Route 66 -- a series of computer-generated, hands-on attractions, along with historical archives, administrative offices, a restaurant, a gift shop and perhaps a concession stand.
The building will serve as home to the newly created Route 66 Alliance, a national nonprofit foundation dedicated to preserving and supporting programs and projects that benefit the entire length of the roadway. The alliance was incorporated in Oklahoma last year, and its leaders -- which include Tulsa author Michael Wallis, author of "Route 66: The Mother Road" -- have been actively engaged in fundraising efforts.
The building might also serve as the headquarters of the Tulsa River Parks Authority. The site is already home to a Route 66 flag plaza, a pedestrian bridge and two LED-lighted Route 66 shields.
The Plaza is an attractive locus to locals and passersby alike. Indeed, the "shields" have proven especially appealing to all walks, including vandals, who can't help but be attracted by impervious gates and fences, ostensibly intended to prevent citizens from interacting with the historic Route 66 bridge across the Arkansas River.
Nonetheless, Whitaker believes the project's completion will be a boon to the city.
"This is something that's going to be very iconic to Tulsa in terms of visibility," he said, adding that the site's artwork, architecture and streetscaping will attract the attention of motorists on nearby Interstate 244.
"You can see the site very well from the highway. We're hoping this will coincide with an economic recovery. As the economy gradually gets better, when the doors open, it should be a different scenario."
The project is expected to attract Route 66 fans not just from around the country but around the world. It won't just be passing motorists who come to visit the site, Whitaker said. He expects it to be a popular draw for visitors staying at downtown's growing number of hotels and those attending conventions.
"It's only two minutes west of downtown," he said. "It's a good feature at this end of the river, where there wasn't a lot of land available. This will help, in that regard."
Whitaker sees additional benefits to the facility, as well.
"This is for tourists, but it benefits locals a lot, too," he said. "This will help educate students about Route 66. They'll be able to see it portrayed in various ways, and the software will provide an interpretative experience."
Excitement about the project was marred by two incidents of vandalism recently that resulted in damage to the flagpole lights and the shields. Whitaker said he visited the site on March 16 with an architect, and they are trying to enhance the decorative barrier between the pedestrian bridge and the shields.
"We're working through those costs analyses to find what works best," he said. "The damage to the shields was not as extensive as we feared, so we're glad about that. But we are going to have to replace 14 of the 16 flagpole lights."
Meanwhile, progress continues on a life-size bronze sculpture planned for the site by artist Robert Summers. Whitaker said part of the artwork already had been cast at a foundry and is being poured, while work on another part remains.
"We would like for it to be here by the end of the summer," he said.
Whitaker said the first two phases of the design work on the building are expected to take 18 months, while the bidding and construction phases should take another 18 months, though he cautioned that timeline could change.
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