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Route 66: The Road Ahead

On November 20 and 21, 2013, WMF convened a strategic roundtable titled “The Road Ahead,” with generous support from American Express. The roundtable, following on the findings of the Route 66 Economic Impact Study of 2012, explored ways to leverage new opportunities for investment and innovative partnerships in heritage tourism and historic preservation along Route 66. The event was hosted at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim, California, with a special visit to and tour of Cars Land. The 2006 Disney/Pixar film Cars demonstrates how the construction of interstate highways undermined the economic viability of small towns and larger cities along “the Mother Road,” and demonstrates the potential for revitalization of this legendary route and the towns along it.

The roundtable brought together more than 100 representatives from industry, government, community groups, and nonprofits to explore the sustainability of Route 66 as a cultural and recreational venue, as well as an economic engine for local communities. The event was organized as a series of panel presentations and moderated discussions. The presentations examined the economic impacts of preservation and heritage tourism along the route, and discussed ways in which to incentivize investment and enhance tourism potential. A small group of Route 66 stakeholders participated in a planning session on November 22 to outline potential opportunities for collaboration and identify priorities for promoting sustainable tourism, economic development, and historic preservation along the route.

As part of the roundtable activities, the group participated in a tour of Cars Land, which recreates the setting for the film Cars and is inspired by Route 66. A number of historic sites along the route were used as models for the film and the Disney venue, and exploring the life-size versions of the buildings was fascinating. Several members of the group experienced Cars Land for the first time, admiring every detail and rounding every turn with anticipation. Other members of the group were veteran visitors to the park, but their enthusiasm and amazement with the surroundings was as if they were seeing Cars Land with fresh eyes (picture).

U.S. Highway 66, better known as Route 66, was one of the first interregional automobile highways, stretching 2,400 miles from Chicago to Santa Monica. It opened in 1926 and was officially decommissioned in 1985. It was included on the 2008 World Monuments Watch to highlight the complex challenges of preserving such an expansive historic corridor, as well as an iconic landscape and genuine experience of twentieth-century American history and culture. When the interstate highways were constructed mid-century, many communities along Route 66 were bypassed and subsequently faced economic hardship. The economic impact study indicated that tourism is often the most important economic engine for many of the towns and small businesses along the Mother Road, and preserving the route can enable the revitalization of communities. Preserving the road is a good investment and historic preservation should be used as a tool for sustainable development along Route 66.

A full report on the event will be available in early 2014. As a follow-up, WMF will be working with the National Park Service Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program to facilitate the development of a cooperative framework that will enable the many Route 66 stakeholders—spread across 8 states and more than 300 communities—to collaborate more effectively. The route’s celebrated past and enduring spirit can help to shape the road ahead through forging strong partnerships among the passionate stewards of the landscape, capitalizing on opportunities for sustainable development, and maintaining an authentic experience for visitors who seek out the roadside Americana that makes Route 66 so memorable.