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Route 66: Businesses Try Resurfacing on Historic Road

Route 66
Mark Williamson | Photolibrary | Getty Images
Route 66

Most of Route 66 is long gone from U.S. maps.

The series of roads that connected Chicago, Ill., to Santa Monica, Calif., is found mostly on Google searches, in specialty publications or by historic markers.

But the worldwide mystique Route 66 holds—along with a nostalgia for open road travel—has encouraged some entrepreneurs to revive the roadway's once thriving business communities.

"This has far exceeded our expectations," says Kevin Mueller, who along with his wife Nancy, own the Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari, N.M. "There's great history behind this place and we couldn't be happier running it."

The two 50 year olds left their native Michigan after losing their jobs—he in automotive service industry and she in real estate—and bought the decades-old Blue Swallow in 2011 for a low six-figure price with their retirement savings.

"We couldn't find any jobs of interest and I remembered a trip I took out this way in 2007 so we thought, why not?" Kevin Mueller adds, who holds a hotel and restaurant management degree from college.

"It's hard work for sure, and the days are long," Mueller goes on to say about the restored motel with 12 rooms that faces Route 66. "But the local people love what we've done and we expect to make our investment back in five years."

Blue Swallow Motel Owners Kevin and Nancy
Source: Blueswallowmotel.com
Blue Swallow Motel Owners Kevin and Nancy

A recent study from Rutgers University and the National Park Service shows there is money to be made on the "Mother Road," as John Steinbeck called Route 66 in his novel "The Grapes of Wrath."

Some $132 million is currently spent along the roads supporting about 2,400 jobs and producing $90 million in income, according to the report.

"These aren't huge numbers, but for the towns that lost industries, the legacy of Route 66 helps many local businesses," says David Listokin, a professor at Rutgers and a co-author of the study. "Some towns along the route are actually coming back financially."

What's helping the small towns and their businesses revive is that hundreds of them along the route have been designated as historic landmarks.

Thatenables them to get government grants and tax credits—while drawing visitors looking for a sense of the past.

"The locals are doing all they can to get money and the designation to profit from the roadway's heritage," says Listokin. "But some places are better at it than others."

Route 66 wasn't always a side-road attraction. The highway system dates back to 1926 and covered some 2,500 miles through eight states. And as Americans headed West by car, the Mother Road was pockmarked with thousands of motels, gas stations, coffee shops, trading posts and other small businesses.

Traffic increased on Route 66 in the 1930s as people moved to find jobs—spending what money they had on supplies and places to stay. Other travel spikes followed World War II and through the 1950's and 60's as vacationers headed west—and more businesses sprang up to service them.

Map of U.S. Route 66
Map of U.S. Route 66

But many sections of Route 66 saw major road realignments over the years and after the Interstate Highway Act of 1956, it was never the same.

More towns along Main Street, as Route 66 is often called, found themselves bypassed as newer routes made travel faster and more direct. In 1986, Route 66 was decertified as a highway and officially ceased to exist.

Even as it was "dying," Route 66 had enthusiasts determined to keep it alive. Many states along the route set up their own preservation groups and there were individual efforts. David Knudson runs the National Historic Route 66 Federation from Lake Arrowhead, Calif., and says it was a trip from Chicago to California in 1964 that left him full of memories.

"My late wife Mary Lou and I set up this organization in 1994 after we tried to drive that same way again and couldn't find Route 66 on maps," says Knudson, who was part of the Rutgers University study. "Since then, many businesses have come back and there's more interest in Route 66 than ever."

15 percent of roadway population is impoverished.

Boot Hill Saloon and Grill owner, Chef Rory
Source: boothillvega.com
Boot Hill Saloon and Grill owner, Chef Rory

But not every business finds the Mother Road paved with profits—especially newer ones.

Rory Schepisi owns the Boot Hill Saloon and Grillalong a part of Route 66 in Vega, Texas, and says she's been trying to sell the place almost since the day she opened it in 2007.

"I came here with the idea of putting people to work and to help the local economy," says the 35-year-old New Jersey native and culinary school graduate who came to Vega as part of a reality show before buying the building.

"But it's been tough. One night I might get 300 people and the next night no one," she adds.

While Tucumcari has a population of some 5,000 people, Vega—located some 30 miles from Amarillo—has only about 900 residents. That's a very small customer base, says Schepisi, who employees anywhere from 12 to 26 people, pays some $14,000 a year in taxes and has yet to find even one possible buyer for the grill.

"Being on Route 66 is nice but it's not as consistent when it comes to traffic and customers," Schepisi goes on to say. "I love living here but I'm not sure I get all the local support I need to make this work."

It's no secret that many towns along what's left of Route 66 are having hard economic times. According to the Rutgers survey, some 15 percent of the roadway's residents are considered impoverished.

Blue Swallow Motel
Source: blueswallowmotel.com
Blue Swallow Motel

"There are limits to traveling and tourism in terms of dollars spent," says Rutger's Listokin. "Many small businesses face challenges. There are start-up costs, then there are expenses. It's not easy."

Those who do travel and spend on the nearly 2,000 miles left of the route—some 15 percent of them are from overseas—seem driven by a need to go back in time, say experts.

That nostalgia—coupled with modern technology—is reason enough to see a bright future, argues Kevin Mueller.

"We get baby boomers here with their kids and grandkids. We must talk to 100 people a day. And we're open all year long, as well as being on Facebook and we take online reservations. Those are things the previous owner didn't do," says Mueller.

"It's good enough that I want my own kids to have this business when I retire."

Email us at SmallBiz@cnbc.com and follow us on Twitter @SmallBizCNBC.

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