Route 66 under stress

by Larry Lemmons
NewsChannel 10

Amarillo, Texas -  According to "hotel stay" numbers alone, almost $2-million tourists come to Amarillo every year.  That's not counting those who drive through and stop at local tourist magnets like The Big Texan and other restaurants and businesses.  Tourists pump about $350-million dollars into the local economy.

One of the iconic tourist attractions in Amarillo is Route 66.  People come from all over the country and the world to travel the highway.  Travelers who drive Route 66 drive Amarillo Boulevard and Sixth Avenue, which are some of the older parts of the city.

Despite the economic downturn merchants on Historic Route 66 say tourist traffic has been steady.  Stan Dodge of antique store Alley Katz says "June has been our best month, and July both are shaping up to be our best months that we've had in the last four or five years.

Of course, crime has risen on Sixth, prompting a higher police presence.  A pipe bomb was found and detonated by police at 7th and Virginia, one block off Route 66 Thursday.  The Amarillo Police Department has designated the area a "hot zone", meaning an officer will be dedicated to patrolling the streets there and in the San Jacinto neighborhood.  Police say in the past three weeks there have been 186 contacts and 18 arrests. Corporal Jerry Neufeld of APD says bar and other owners of property along there were asking for help after numerous incidences of vandalism and public intoxication.

And the street battles with graffiti and trash.  Tom Warren, a board member of the Historic Route 66 Association says many merchants pitch in to try to keep the area clean.  "What we try to do is just clean up the street, literally, for one thing, trash, clean up alleys."

Residents in the San Jacinto neighborhood, directly behind the businesses say they frequently call police to pick up drunks.  One woman, who didn't wish to be identified, says she also is forced to clean up after drunks and others who relieve themselves by her dumpster.  Another anonymous resident of the neighborhood says he's seen the neighborhood decline considerably in the time he's lived there.

But none of this has stopped the tourists from traveling Route 66.  Eric Miller, Director of Communications for the Amarillo Convention and Visitor Council says," "Yeah, there might be an empty store front, there might be some graffiti, but some of those building are really cool. And they're really doing some neat things down there. And there are some dedicated merchants who are trying to make a go. So there's an energy there. And Route 66 fans appreciate that, especially."

Miller says he's advised merchants along Route 66 to see if the City of Amarillo can contribute to the upkeep of this steady economic stream.