Preparations for the 100th anniversary of Route 66 in 2026 include a master plan for development along the historic road in Springfield and the rest of Sangamon County to promote more overnight stays.
The effort, being coordinated by the Springfield-Sangamon County Regional Planning Commission with a $200,000 grant from the Illinois Department of Transportation, is taking place alongside planning to sketch out options for revitalizing housing stock and neighborhoods along a smaller section of Route 66.
A master plan for the segment, along North Ninth Street and Peoria Road between Veterans Parkway on the north and Cook Street on the south, is being funded with an additional $250,000 grant from IDOT.
Development proposals for both long-term plans will be presented to the public this summer for comment, with formal plans expected to be completed in fall 2023, according to Molly Berns, the planning commission's executive director.
Well-developed master plans put communities in the best position to land government grants and forge public-private partnerships to pay for and carry out those plans, she said.
"I really find it invigorating, because there's a certain amount of synergy to be gained from excitement about changes in the community," Berns told Illinois Times.
Steering committees for both the Route 66 and North Ninth/Peoria Road master plans "are working very diligently," she said. Displays from a previous open house on the plans can be viewed at the planning commission's website at sscrpc.com. In addition to viewing the displays, an online questionnaire is available for the public to provide comments. Comments and questions may also be emailed to [email protected].
The Peoria-based Farnsworth Group design firm, which has a Springfield office, won the contract to lead the North Ninth/Peoria Road planning process and will be assisted by Virginia-based Lardner/Klein Landscape Architects. Lardner/Klein, in turn, is spearheading the Route 66 master plan, with Farnsworth providing assistance.
Route 66, a 2,448-mile highway that was built and established in the 1920s between Chicago and Santa Monica, was once a primary migration route to the West as people drove through Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico before reaching California. The Mother Road was immortalized in a popular 1946 song as well as the "Route 66" television series, the Disney/Pixar animated Cars film franchise and John Steinbeck's novel, The Grapes of Wrath.
Not much of the original pavement remains in central Illinois, and Route 66 was decommissioned from the official federal highway numbering system in 1985. But tourism along the route has continued, and efforts to refurbish or recreate Route 66 attractions have grown.
"The Route 66 visitor presence on Facebook pages and online is pretty significant," Berns said.
Scott Dahl, director of the Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau, who is a member of both master plan steering committees, said Route 66, for international travelers, represents "true Americana.
"It's the open road," Dahl said. "It sums up America. ... Route 66 slows us down and allows us to appreciate a simpler time."
A big influx in visitors is expected in 2026, he said.
Route 66 entered Sangamon County from the north near Williamsville and traveled through Sherman to Springfield. It then took two different routes, one from 1926 to 1930 and the other from 1930 to 1977, according to the Sangamon County Historical Society.
The earlier route led to Chatham, Auburn, Thayer and Virden before leaving the county. The later one ran through an area now submerged by Lake Springfield and then to Glenarm and Divernon, according to the society.
Berns said she would like to see Springfield and Sangamon County join communities such as Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Springfield, Missouri, in establishing more bricks-and-mortar attractions and boosting tourism numbers and revenues.
Some Route 66 tourists visit the Abraham Lincoln sites in Springfield. But in general, the two groups have separate interests, she said.
The long-term goal is to have so many activities that Route 66 tourists, many of them from other countries, are more likely to stay overnight rather than just stop to eat at Cozy Dog Drive-In or Route 66 Motorheads Bar & Grill, she said.
"There's a whole lot of things going on, but Springfield primarily is a drive-through," Berns said.
Plenty of work is happening now to promote existing Route 66 attractions in advance of the 100th anniversary, Dahl said.
Grants from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity and Illinois Route 66 Scenic Byway are paying for completion of the Route 66 Experience at the Illinois State Fairgrounds by June 30, he said.
DCEO also is helping to fund a "metaverse experience" at Route History, a museum and visitors' center at 737 E. Cook St., that focuses on Black experiences in and near Route 66. The augmented reality and virtual reality technology will portray the experiences of Black travelers on Route 66 from the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s. It is also scheduled to be completed by the end of June.
And improvements at Shea's Gas Station Museum at 2075 N. Peoria Road will allow the exterior of the station to open to the public later this year, also thanks to money from DCEO, Dahl said.
Sangamon County Board member Annette Fulgenzi, a Sherman Republican representing District 17, said she is happy to see all of the planning proceed. She said she has pushed for improvements along North Ninth and Peoria Road since 2015.
Fulgenzi is hoping some Route 66 attractions, as well as efforts to clear out the many vacant homes along the route for new housing, can be established as part of the master plan for the section.
Abby Powell, director of business development for the Springfield Sangamon Growth Alliance, has been part of the planning efforts and previously worked in the city of Springfield's Office of Planning and Economic Development
The North Ninth/Peoria Road section of Route 66 "is an area that the city has defined for redevelopment," she said.
That section of the route also could be redeveloped with help from a tax-increment financing district established by the Springfield City Council in 2017, Fulgenzi said. In addition, a portion of North Ninth Street between Carpenter Street and North Grand Avenue is within the boundaries of the Enos Park TIF district.
Some of the original bricks from Route 66 are under the asphalt on Peoria Road and could be incorporated into future tourism sites, Fulgenzi said.
"Route 66 is there, but people don't really see it," she said.