Located: Atlanta, Illinois
William Thomas has lived in Atlanta, Ill., for 27 years and still calls himself a newcomer in this town of 1,464 people. But Thomas, who is treasurer of the Atlanta Library Board, and sits on the board of the Atlanta Betterment Fund, is as dedicated to the town as any old-timer. Once a bustling center of commerce, Atlanta declined after Interstate 55 took traffic east of town.
Twelve years ago Thomas sketched out a plan to create a tourist economy in Atlanta based on its association with Route 66. With funds he helped raise, the 30s’-era Palms Grill Café, a casualty of the interstate, was restored and reopened in 2009. “People want an experience of what it was really like to travel the road,” says Thomas. “I said, ‘We need to restore the grill so when people walk into the door, they are transported back to 1936.’” The menu at the Palms includes grilled spam, fried bologna, homemade gooseberry pie and blue-plate specials.
Today, a Route 66 gift shop has opened across the street from the café, and an artisans’ collective and a candy company have set up shop two doors down. The Atlanta Museum next door has also seen a spike in visitors. For the months of April through August – the town’s busiest time of year – sales tax revenue has increased 43 percent from 2008 to 2011.