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Okla. cities hope signs lure tourists to Route 66

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 (Reuters)

At least two cities in Oklahoma along the famed Route 66 are planning to turn to billboards and neon signs to lure visitors in.

Travel along the route, which runs from Chicago to Santa Monica, Calif., was popular first during the Dust Bowl era and later as a vacation destination for Americans. But traffic has slowed over the years as interstates became the more popular — and quicker — path to drive. This means some communities along Route 66 are bypassed by travelers.

Route 66 enthusiast Kathy Anderson has been working with the nonprofit Bethany Improvement Foundation to create the Billboard Museum, dedicated to commemorating vintage signs and billboards and the people who created them.

"There is a need, especially in Oklahoma, for a resting place for signs, whether it's neon, porcelain (or) any kind of outside advertising that is being threatened with destruction, either because there has been a business change or the sign itself, the owner just doesn't want the sign," said Anderson, who has worked on several Route 66 videos.

Arlita Harris, the foundation's secretary-treasurer, hopes the museum would draw more visitors to Bethany, located just west of Oklahoma City.

"There are a lot of people traveling Route 66, and I'm going to say 99 percent of them are international visitors," Harris said. "... We have just needed an attraction that makes sure people go through the Bethany part of Route 66 and not bypass the (Oklahoma City) metro area."

The museum is just an idea at the moment, though meetings are taking place all the time, Harris and Anderson said. Land — and lots of it — is what they are searching for now.

"A billboard museum cannot be small, so it won't fit on two acres," Anderson said.

The idea is to have a building to house some signs and billboards, as well as a driving loop to showcase vintage billboards. Anderson and members of the Billboard Museum committee also hope to locate a shopping complex called the Route 66 Retroplex near the museum.

"If we don't start putting them in museums or keeping them local — they're collectible — they're going to be taken down sold and taken out of state," said Jim Gleason, sales manager at Superior Neon Signs and a member of the Billboard Museum committee.

A little more than 100 miles to the northeast, Tulsa City Councilor Blake Ewing and members of a Route 66 Task Force have come up with their own ideas to draw route enthusiasts and other tourists to the area. One of the ideas is to promote neon signage along the famed highway in Tulsa.

"We want to relax the sign code on the Route 66 corridor to allow for the more historic neon signs like you would have seen the back in the day. I think, obviously, that's part of the attraction.

"Neon now has a nostalgic cool about it," Ewing said.

Ewing hopes the sign code would be updated within the year, along with a new city grant that would help businesses pay for the neon signs. The task force has proposed a Route 66 bus line using retro-style buses and a Route 66 Authority to oversee development and promotion of the corridor, among other recommendations.

"We've got 20-some odd miles of Route 66 running through our city and it's just been neglected for some time, but we really believe it's one of our city's core assets, and if we just invest in it, it will improve the attraction," he said.

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