By Emily Priddy
Pontiac, Illinois, was struggling in 2008. The nearby Vermilion River overflowed its banks in January. A local prison closed. And the country had fallen into a recession.
A year later, about 150 muralists known as the Walldogs gave the community a much-needed boost, Pontiac tourism director Ellie Alexander said during a panel discussion on creating Route 66 “hot spots” at the recent Miles of Possibility conference in Edwardsville, Illinois.
The Walldogs’ murals — placed strategically to draw foot traffic past active businesses — are among the attractions that brought nearly 25,000 visitors to Pontiac last year, Alexander said.
In addition to murals, Pontiac has several downtown museums established through public-private partnerships in which the city contributes space, and private collectors provide exhibits, she said.
“Our goal is everything we add to the package makes people stay longer,” Alexander said. “… The longer they’re there, they’re spending money.”
Down the road in Atlanta, Illinois, Bill Thomas of the Atlanta Betterment Group said his city’s tourism efforts operate from the premise that people are looking for experiences — things they can feel, taste, see, smell and hear.
History buffs can eat a blue-plate special at the Palms Grill Café or sleep in a 1947 rooming house donated to the city by a local resident and renovated with the help of a grant, Thomas said, while bus-tour participants wind the clock on Atlanta’s square to earn certificates pronouncing them “honorary keepers of the clock.”
Not far away, an old-fashioned high-striker game sits in front of a Route 66 mural that invites visitors to “hit the road,” he said.
A few hundred miles to the southwest, visitors to Shamrock, Texas, can enjoy free coffee or tea while they shop for locally made souvenirs, check their email, view historic exhibits or mail postcards at the U-Drop Inn, said Larry Clonts, director of the Shamrock Economic Development Corporation and Chamber of Commerce director.
In 2013, the iconic Art Deco building — empty except for a small gift shop in one end — logged 3,400 visitors, Clonts said.
Last year, using hotel-tax revenue to cover maintenance, operating expenses and employees’ salaries, it became the Shamrock Visitor and Information Center, expanding its offerings to include museum exhibits, a Tesla charging station and a “classy car” board displaying submitted photographs of visitors’ cars parked in front of the building.
The efforts paid off: By the end of 2014, the center had logged 10,500 visitors, and it is 5,000 ahead of that this year, Clonts said.
That success benefits the whole road, he said.
“As each city moves forward, the entire route moves forward,” Clonts said.
(A few more stories from the Miles of Possibility conference will be published in the coming days)