POSTED ON OCTOBER 24, 2012:
Shining a spotlight on Route 66
Along Route 66 in Tulsa, much has changed since the publication of noted author Michael Wallis' Route 66: The Mother Road.
"Back when the book came out in 1990, I actually mildly took Tulsa to task, because I didn't think enough was being done for Route 66," said Wallis.
That can hardly be said to be the case now, with various projects now inspiring road tourists to pull over in Tulsa.
In 2003, voters approved $15 million for Route 66-themed projects via the Vision 2025 sales tax hike.
But along with the public funds, volunteers have made a big contribution towards Route 66 becoming an attraction in Tulsa.
Mike Massey is among a group of volunteers who helped restore a former steam locomotive and three railroad cars that now stand gleaming at the Route 66 Village.
Just eight years ago, the spot was little more than a vacant plot of land on Southwest Boulevard across from Webster High School.
An oil derrick was put in place in 2009, Massey said. The locomotive came just last year.
In all, a group of roughly 10 volunteers have put in about 7,000 hours to restore the once-rusty train parts into a major roadside attraction.
Foreign visitors travelling Route 66 frequently stop by to sign the guestbook at the site.
"Just name a country, practically, in Europe, and they've been by to see it," Massey said, noting that the site has been a draw without any advertising.
Massey is part of the Route 66 Village group that has plans to expand their vision to include a museum of sorts.
"We're planning on building a big railroad depot that will be in line with the track to make it look like the train is coming into the station," Massey said.
It's not quite a sure thing, though City Councilor Jeannie Cue, who formerly headed the Route 66 Village organization, said that the group has purchased two nearby homes with plans to hand the property over to the city for expansion of the roadside park.
The Route 66 Village project would also receive $549,000 in funding if voters approve the Vision2 proposal to extend the sales tax hike approved by voters in 2003.
Those Vision 2025 funds provided the biggest boost in public funds to date to highlight the highway, with sales tax dollars funding the Cyrus Avery Memorial Bridge and the nearby Cyrus Avery Centennial Plaza.
Just this year, the long-awaited sculpture featuring Cyrus Avery arrived. Still not completely installed, the sculpture, titled "East Meets West" will feature Avery in an early automobile encountering a horse-drawn wagon. Avery was a Tulsa County commissioner in the 1910s who later advocated for highway development, including what would eventually become Route 66.
Along with those projects, local business owner Mary Beth Babcock is working to develop an offbeat roadside attraction. Babcock -- fresh off of being named Oklahoman of the Year by Oklahoma Today magazine -- wants to install a robot sculpture that's maybe 25 feet tall.
"It's in its infancy stage. It's kind of just a dream that I've had for a long time," said Babcock, who owns downtown shop Dwelling Spaces.
Why a robot?
"It's just another cool thing, another cool, eccentric fun thing to see on Route 66," Babcock said, adding that her first choice would be to have the sculpture downtown near her store -- Route 66 at one time did pass through downtown -- but she said she's also open to other ideas.
Babcock cited the Blue Whale sculpture in Catoosa off of Route 66 as part of her inspiration. Robot or not, Babcock said she's pleased by efforts to restore vitality to Route 66.
"I think more and more people are challenging their creativity. It's like, 'Ok, I see that they can do this. Why can't I try this,' Babcock said.
In 2005, a city-commissioned study done as part of Vision 2025 outlined potential projects to highlight Route 66. Still on the drawing board is a Route 66 building that would be near the Avery plaza site.
"It's not a museum, but the concept is an interpretive center that would commemorate Route 66," said Dennis Whitaker, a planner with the city. Along with information about Route 66, the plan calls from some sort of commercial presence, like a restaurant, perhaps.
He said $6.5 million in Vision 2025 funds have been set aside for the project, but an economic feasibility review is ongoing.
"We do believe it will move forward," Whitaker said.
More firm plans involve commemorative signs at East 11th Street and South Yale Avenue. To be done in conjunction with road repairs and plans for a "pocket park" at the intersection, Whitaker said $800,000 is devoted for Route 66-themed signs at the site, with the project partially funded by $385,000 in federal funds.
"Out in the middle of the intersection, we're going to put a one-of-a-kind pre-cast designed Route 66 shield, and then for the crosswalk we're going to commemorate the eight states of Route 66," Whitaker said, referring to states where they highway passes through.
Wallis praised City Councilor Blake Ewing for efforts to make sure Route 66 remains a city priority. In the last budget cycle, Ewing successfully pushed for $50,000 in city funds to help businesses on Route 66 pay for neon signs. The large Meadow Gold neon sign on East 11th Street was restored with a mix of Vision 2025 funds, private contributions and a federal grant.
Wallis said he hopes plans move forward with the structure near the Avery plaza, adding that he would like to house the Route 66 Alliance, a non-profit he co-founded, in the structure once it gets built.
He said it just makes sense from an economic point-of-view for the city to invest in Route 66 as a tourist attraction.
"Once you get people off of Interstate 44 into Tulsa, then that opens it up far beyond Route 66 to all sorts of other attractions," Wallis said.
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