SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Long before he opened Route 66 Motorheads Bar and Grill on Springfield’s southern edge last year, Ron Metzger was among the few keeping Springfield’s Route 66 heritage alive through the purchasing of local memorabilia and telling the stories behind those items.
Many of those items now find a home in his Toronto Road restaurant and free museum of Route 66 memorabilia that adjoins it, with much of what he bought coming from the former Bill Shea’s Route 66 Museum.
Though a Route 66 history aficionado himself, it was not until he opened his doors and started meeting customers from all over the world that he fully understood the allure of the Mother Road.
“Sometimes we forget about it,” Metzger said. “The local residents definitely forget about it because they don’t quite understand how big it is internationally.
“The international people in here are unbelievable,” he continued. “I’ve got them coming from Japan, China, the UK, I’ve had movie crews in here, I mean I’ve had all kinds of international travelers, who it’s a big, big deal with them. That’s been the fun part of it all.”
Metzger is among several business owners who are joining city and county officials in mapping out a more coordinated effort to market Springfield’s Route 66 assets.
The effort comes as the city seeks to reposition itself as a top destination off the Mother Road after falling behind as other cities upped their marketing. And local officials hope to have Springfield ready for 2026, the year the road will celebrate its centennial.
The idea is to make Springfield a hub — a place for travelers starting in Chicago to stop overnight — by highlighting the highway’s path through Springfield into a marketable, memorabilia-laden corridor.
According to Scott Dahl, executive director of the Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau, stakeholders in local government have met with Route 66 business owners twice as plans start to take shape.
“There has been talk in the past and I think it just never came to fruition,” Dahl said. “So what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to take the ideas that have been in the past and then the current ideas from the Route 66 community here in Springfield, figure out what everyone’s trying to do and put them all together.”
Putting it all together was a common theme among business owners along the stretch and local elected officials, who note that Springfield often has more things to see and do along Route 66 than places like Pontiac and Litchfield, which have marketed themselves as major stops along the route in Illinois.
“All these other areas just from a Route 66 visual standpoint and a tangible standpoint kind of increased their game,” Dahl said. “As they continue to grow, now we’re behind. It seems like we’re a little behind, even though we were the original marketers of it, it seems like now we haven’t kept up with the times.”
Annette Fulgenzi, a member of the Sangamon County Board who represents a stretch of the route on the north end, agreed that Springfield has been “slow to the table” on Route 66.
“If you drive from Sherman coming in on Route 66/Business 55, you’ll see all the little vendors, all the little businesses along there,” said Fulgenzi. “They’re all trying to tie in the Route 66 theme. But there’s not been any cohesive effort to help them establish a brand, to really do a marketing campaign around it and kind of build that identity for Springfield.”
In a presentation given in 2015, Fulgenzi and her father-in-law, John Fulgenzi, identified three components necessary for the successful redevelopment of Route 66, specifically where it enters Springfield along Peoria Road. They included elevating Peoria Road improvements as a priority project for the Illinois Department of Transportation, the creation of a Peoria Road tax-increment financing district and the commissioning of a Route 66 corridor study.
Of those, only the TIF has been formed so far. However, the county recently applied for an IDOT grant that would fund a Route 66 corridor study throughout Sangamon County.
Fulgenzi’s husband, Jeff, who sits on the board of directors for the Route 66 Road Ahead Partnership, said getting everyone on the same page is crucial.
“It’s critical for community leaders, elected officials, business leaders all across the corridor to understand that Route 66 and touring the United States is a bucket list item for internationals all over the world,” he said. “This is their destination. We’re not doing enough to welcome them.”
To that end, the city does not have a dedicated Route 66 welcome center, something several business owners and elected officials have expressed their desire to open.
Joliet, Pontiac, Bloomington-Normal, Atlanta, Lincoln and Litchfield have all added the Route 66 theme to local history museums, including through private fundraising, donations of Route 66 collections, in-kind labor and government funding. Springfield is a notable exception.
A variety of ideas have been floated for a Route 66 museum-visitor center in Springfield, including conversion of the former Bel-Aire Motel, a Route 66-era hotel. The city forced demolition of the motel in 2015 as a result of hundreds of safety and building-code violations. The lot has remained vacant.
Most recently there was informal discussion of converting the former Shea’s Route 66 as a ready-made Route 66 museum and visitor center. Regular tours ended after the 2013 death of founder Bill Shea, and the extensive collection of Route 66 memorabilia was auctioned.
While plans for a welcome center appear years off at the very least, Dahl said the city’s efforts to better market the route will start to become apparent in the next year.
One example is through a “Living Legends” program, which aims to “bring the road alive” by encouraging tourists to meet several characters along the route, such as Metzger, Fulgenzi and Maldaner’s owner Michael Higgins.
“This is going to help add to our current assets, but bring the road alive,” Dahl said. “So they’re going to be able to come through town, like a scavenger hunt and be able to meet these living legends, these people that have had businesses along Route 66, that have stories on Route 66, that have collected memorabilia for 40 years.”
Dahl said the city is currently focusing on identifying its existing Route 66 assets and figuring out its various alignments through town.
The paths of the “Mother Road” cut right through Springfield with various different alignments, including what is now Business Loop 55 and, later, Dirksen Parkway and Stevenson Drive. Famous stops along the route included Cozy Dog Drive-In, the now-closed Sonrise Donuts and various filling stations and motels.
He said there are plans to promote sites along all the different spokes of the route, but that one major artery would be chosen as the main route.
In terms of assets, many lamented at the memorabilia that has been lost to history or to museums out of town. To keep this from happening, many have stepped up to purchase Springfield’s Route 66 history in the community.
This is what led Jeff Fulgenzi to purchase the former Mahan’s Station in 2016, which now sits outside of Fulgenzi’s Pizza and Pasta.
“There wasn’t really a plan, but he just knew that it needed to be saved,” Annette Fulgenzi said. “It was a plan he didn’t share with me because I probably would have said no.”
Fulgenzi joked that she affectionately calls the station “the shed,” which she is now on board with her husband purchasing despite the initial reservations.
The city of Springfield made a similar move last year when it purchased the iconic Sonrise Donuts sign for $22,000 at auction. According to Dahl, restoration is complete on one side featuring new neon and new bulbs, but the original casing.
While a site has not yet been determined, Dahl said the sign will be placed somewhere along the corridor when it is complete.
The goal is for the corridor to be ready by 2023, Dahl said, which would give the city ample time before the centennial for marketing.
State Rep. Tim Butler, R-Springfield, the main sponsor of the bill that created the Illinois Route 66 Centennial Commission, said he hopes Gov. J.B. Pritzker appoints members soon to give ample time to plan.
“When I look back at the state bicentennial last year, I think one of our problems was we got a late start in planning for it,” Butler said. “I think the centennial of 66 in 2026 is going to be a huge thing not only for our state, but for our country.”
Nationally, there has been a push by members of the U.S. Congress to designate Route 66 a National Historic Trail, which would free up resources, such as staff, technical services and economic development assistance, to preserve the road, which was named one of the nation’s 11 most-endangered places last year.
A measure designating it a National Historic Trail, sponsored by Rep. Darin LaHood, R-Peoria, passed the House unanimously, but failed to receive a vote in the Senate.
Butler, however, believes that the importance of Route 66 is starting to be better understood, even in Springfield, where Abraham Lincoln is king and state government is the town’s best known industry.
“I think people are beginning to understand because of the work of groups like the Route 66 Scenic Byway and some of the other things that we’ve had going on, that Route 66 is a vital tourism and economic draw for our community,” Butler said. “And we need to invest some resources to be able to make it a greater attraction for people.”
Back at Motorheads, Metzger is optimistic that in the next two to three years, Springfield will be a destination for travelers along the route.
“We’ve got Abe Lincoln, which is big. So this town depends on tourism,” Metzger said. “And Route 66 can be as big as Abe Lincoln. It really can if we can promote it right and do it right.”
At the very least, he is making a play to become a must-visit place as folks drive out of town. In addition to his extensive collection of memorabilia, Metzger plans to have the world’s largest Route 66 emblem installed outside his restaurant by the end of summer.
The sign, being built by Ace Sign Company, will feature a lit-up Route 66 shield with the words Motorheads emblazoned on the top instead of Illinois.
“I found out who has the world’s largest now and we blew them away,” Metzger said. “So we’re going to be known they got to come to Springfield to see the world’s largest Route 66 emblem.”