July 6, 2023

Community Partner Profile: Route 66 Commission–Paving the Road to Revitalization

If you’ve explored Tulsa’s 20+ mile stretch of Route 66, you’ve likely noticed that things are brighter along the historic highway lately.  At the heart of Tulsa’s Route 66 revival lies the Route 66 Commission and its Neon Sign Grant Program. These signs are eye-catching and tell the stories of the businesses, attractions and people that have shaped the Mother Road. We caught up with Samantha Extance, Chair of the Route 66 Commission, to learn more about the efforts to preserve and revive this historic transportation corridor and its continued role as a catalyst for economic development throughout Tulsa.

Q: Route 66 is a worldwide destination and is an important part of Tulsa’s history. How does the Route 66 commission work to revitalize this historic destination?

Our work builds off of the Vision 2025 and Vision Tulsa Route 66 initiatives and projects, and continues the momentum of those voter-approved investments. In addition to maintaining the landmarks, attractions, and Route 66 assets we currently have, we create and help implement specific strategies and plans to encourage economic development, historic preservation, heritage tourism, and promotion for Route 66. Advocacy is also a big part of what we do.

The Commission funds and manages grant programs to encourage private investment for the beautification of Tulsa’s stretch of the Mother Road. We provide business and entrepreneur resources through events and workshops. We collaborate with Visit Tulsa and other partners to promote Tulsa 66. The Commission serves as a technical expert for the Tulsa Planning Office and various City departments for projects like the Route 66 Master Plan and the Route 66 BRT, which focus on the needed infrastructure, growth, and development of the road. And so much more.

With the creation of the Commission, we are unique from other mid-sized cities on 66 because we have a dedicated group of experts and volunteers working togther to revitalize Route 66. In 2011, Rutgers University published a Route 66 Economic Impact Study, and the update to that study (which will be published soon) uses Tulsa as one of its case studies. The collective work that we have done (the City, Commission, private sector, and countless volunteers) has solidified Tulsa’s reputation as an innovative city that’s investing in Route 66.

Q: Route 66 had its official beginnings in 1926 when the Bureau of Public Roads launched the nation’s first Federal highway system. Can you highlight any plans for the Mother Road’s Centennial celebration in 2026?

In Tulsa, the celebration has already begun with the annual Mother of All Road Fests – AAA Route 66 Road Fest which took place in June. The event has something for everyone: classic car show, Pinewood Derby, Route 66 themed mini golf, kids activities, a future of mobility exhibit, and an immersive history exhibit that takes you through the decades of the road.

Large-scale planning for the Centennial is underway, and while there are no big plans to share just yet; Tulsa and Oklahoma are uniquely positioned to shine. We have a state-level Route 66 Centennial Commission which manages an annual allocation of $6.6 million dollars for revitalization, projects, and more on the Mother Road. Additionally, two Oklahomans serve on the federal Route 66 Centennial Commission that was seated by President Biden: Michael Wallis and Oklahoma Secretary of Transportation Tim Gatz.

Stay tuned for more to come and ways that you can be involved! 

Q: The City of Tulsa’s neon sign grant program was recently honored by the Tulsa Preservation Commission for advancing historic preservation efforts. Can you tell us more about the program and how it enhances the Route 66 experience for visitors and Tulsans? Do you have a favorite Route 66 neon sign?

Route 66 is synonymous with neon. Travelers, international and national alike, flock to places to capture pictures of historic and new neon signs. In Tulsa, we have a neon renaissance due largely in part to our program.

Launched in 2019, the program is a 50% matching grant up to $10,000 and accomplishes many of our goals as a Commission. It stimulates economic development (in much the same way that neon did in its heyday – by capturing your attention and making you stop and shop). It also preserves vintage and historic neon signs. Our very first sign grantee was a neon sign restoration for Billy Ray’s Catfish & BBQ. It stimulates tourism by encouraging travelers to spend the night. Neon signs are also great for placemaking and wayfinding.

The Meadow Gold neon sign is my favorite. It’s the largest neon sign ANYWHERE on Route 66, but more than that, I love how the community came together to save it from being demolished. To me, it’s a bright symbol of how much can be achieved when we work together.

Q: Route 66 is known for providing one of the best and most scenic routes across the US to tourists, but how does this historic highway’s infrastructure impact Tulsa’s economy?

Annually, Route 66 tourism contributes roughly $79 million dollars in net in-state wealth to the economy.

Tulsa is the Capital of Route 66 because of a key piece of historical infrastructure: the Cyrus Avery Memorial Bridge (or Eleventh St. Bridge as it’s more commonly known). As the only safe, reliable way across the Arkansas River without having to rely on a ferry, Tulsan Cyrus Avery made the case that Route 66 should travel right through our city.

The infrastructure we have continued to invest in and create on Route 66 in Tulsa has reaped great economic benefits and will yield more as we ramp up for the Centennial in 2026.