The Mother Road still shoulders a wide load of small-town commerce.
Route 66, although decommissioned, stripped of its national highway markers and booted off road maps for 27 years now, carries the curious and hauls loads of tourism cash.
Route 66 kicks up $132 million per year for communities and now otherwise out-of-the-way places from Chicago to Santa Monica, Calif., according to an economic impact study by Rutgers University for the National Park Service.
Historic preservation and heritage tourism along Route 66 inject economic lifeblood to old main drags, historic sites and new businesses, the study found.
Researchers used census data, a first-ever comprehensive survey of Route 66 travelers, a museum survey and case studies all along the 2,400-mile route.
In Oklahoma, researchers looked specifically at the Round Barn and POPS in Arcadia; the Route 66 Museum in Clinton; Coleman Theatre in Miami; the Rock Cafe in Stroud; and Vickery Station and a neon Meadow Gold dairy sign in Tulsa.
Highlights of the study include:
• More than 85 percent of Route 66 travelers visit historic places and museums and spend $38 million a year.
• Main Street revitalization programs and other historic preservation add $94 million in annual investment.
• Locally: “Restored Route 66-themed motel, restaurant and gift shop anchor the downtown in many small communities and bring new life and revenue to towns once bypassed by the Interstate Highway System.”
• Nationally: “Impact is an annual gain of 2,400 jobs, $90 million in income, $262 million in overall output, $127 million in gross domestic product and $37 million in tax revenues.”
The bottom line: Preserving Route 66, researchers said, is a good investment.
“This study shows that preserving historic places is important to travelers on Route 66, and brings enormous pride as well as social and economic benefits to those living along the route,” said Kaisa Barthuli, manager of the National Park Service's Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program.
The park service worked with Rutgers' Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, whose professor David Listokin led the study, which also involved the New York-based World Monuments Fund.
“We will continue to work with communities and other partners to preserve the special places that tell this vibrant part of American history, which in turn creates valuable economic opportunities,” Barthuli said.
The data could not be broken down by state,
Researchers found that the median tourist travel time along Route 66 was five days and the average trip was 11 days during the study period, 2008-2011. Day trips accounted for 13.6 percent of all trips and trips lasting more than four weeks made up 4.5 percent of trips among the tourists surveyed.
“Where the numbers are important are in how important heritage tourism is to all the communities and the state as a whole,” said Melvena Heisch, state deputy historic preservation officer with the Oklahoma Historical Society.
Heritage tourists “spend more money than the average tourist and stay longer at a place,” she said. “There's got to be something there holding them. Heritage resources tend to make people want to do that. Heritage travelers are looking for authenticity. They can get Disneyland in California. They want to see the real places.”
Of those surveyed, 37.3 percent were on their first Route 66 trip and 25 percent had made four or more trips. The most common travel party, 67.1 percent, was two adults, with only about 12 percent traveling with children; 14.4 percent were individuals traveling alone; 18.4 percent were larger groups of three or more adults.
“Route 66 is an extremely valuable resource to this state. It's important to preserve it so can people can have something to see — the roadbed to drive on, the buildings to see, all of it. (The study) shows that those places aren't just little (attractions) that a few people think are cool. They are important elements of our economy,” Heisch said.
At a glance
View the study
The study is available online at http://www.wmf.org/dig-deeper/publication/route-66-economic-impact-study-synthesis-findings.