The highs and lows of Williams, Arizona

Williams, Arizona, burgeons with tourists and few storefront vacancies along its downtown Route 66 corridor these days. Yet it also battles with long-term problems.

The Arizona Daily Sun newspaper in nearby Flagstaff published a report on the renaissance of Williams and the challenges the Route 66 town still faces. You can read the whole thing here; the big takeaways are:

Tourism is booming. The newspaper talked to a couple of longtime business owners who note Williams as recently as 15 years ago became quiet after 5 p.m. Nowadays, many of the bars, restaurants and souvenir shops along Route 66 stay open late into the night. And the tourism off-season continues to shrink.

It shouldn’t be construed Williams’ economy was poor 15 years ago. Based on census data, Williams’ population bottomed out to about 2,200 sometime in the 1980s — likely about the time Interstate 40 bypassed the town after the town’s protracted legal battle against it. Since then, Williams’ population has risen by almost 1,000 residents, almost 40 percent.

Route 66’s downtown, Bearizona and Grand Canyon Railway became the big draws. Williams always has benefited from tourists using the town as a base as they explore the Grand Canyon 60 miles north. But Williams has taken its tourism numbers to another level because of homegrown attractions.

Lack of affordable housing remains a chronic issue. Because so many workers in Williams toil in the lower-paying, service-oriented tourism industry. few of them can afford an apartment there, much less a house. The city is aware of the problem and hope to draw more housing developers through streamlined permitting and other non-financial incentives.

Several other Route 66 towns have problems with housing, including Santa Rosa, New Mexico. And I’ve talked to prominent and well-informed residents of Santa Rosa and nearby Tucumcari who believe their towns should back off a bit on Route 66 tourism and try to attract employers that bring higher-paying jobs. But because tourism remains a vital revenue source, city fathers loathe to do that.

(Image of downtown Williams, Arizona, in 2015 by edmj via Flickr)

2 thoughts on “The highs and lows of Williams, Arizona

  1. The problem Williams has attracting low-income workers due to high living expenses is nothing new. Having lived in Florida for 35 years before moving back to my hometown of Joplin, from the Keys to the Panhandle, I saw similar problems in virtually every tourism-dependent community.

    The business owners had a mantra….”If you wanna live in paradise, you gotta pay tourist prices for everything…housing, food, gas, tolls, entertainment etc., and do it for a minimum wage!” Those same business owners also complained that they could not find good, dependable workers!

    It got so bad, that many resorts built dormitories and small apartments to house the workers, and charged an affordable rent that was deducted from their rent. That still did not work because groceries, clothing, and basic entertainment was based on tourist-prices!

    National and State Parks have found that full-time RV owners make excellent “V.I.P.’s”, Volunteers in Parks. These folks have their RV to live in and receive free space with utilities in exchange for working about 24 short hours a week! The money they save by not staying in an pricey RV resort is usually spent in the nearby community! More towns are finding that this also works when they have ‘city’ parks with RV spaces.

    Williams simply needs to pay a LIVING wage, not a ‘minimum wage’, and provide affordable housing if they want good, dependable workers. Some tourist communities provide a “LOCAL’S Card”… a discount for employed workers when they make purchases!

    In the tourist mecca of Branson Missouri, local workers receive discounts on attractions, meals etc., and that community has found that the local workers become “Ambassadors”….sending tourists to places that they have enjoyed!

    Let’s face facts. Low wage workers are underpaid…especially in tourism-based communities where there is a constant turnover of workers. If they want good help….help the good, and reap the benefits!

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