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Southwest Illinois to get $850,000 for Route 66 projects ahead of 100th anniversary

$400,000 of the grants will be used in downtown Granite City to revive old neon Route 66 signs, construct a band stage and insert new electric vehicle charging stations.
Great Rivers & Routes Tourism Bureau
For the 2026 anniversary, $400,000 of the grants will be used in downtown Granite City to revive old neon Route 66 signs, construct a band stage and insert new electric vehicle charging stations.

The last 100 miles of Route 66 in southwest Illinois received $850,000 in state grant money in preparation for the 100th anniversary of the iconic American highway.

The Great Rivers & Routes Tourism Bureau in Alton secured the grants through the Illinois Office of Tourism and the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity for six projects that will be complete by the end of this summer.

“The intent is really to spark redevelopment of historic sites and attractions, help small business owners create roadside attractions or unique stops to keep travelers staying in Illinois longer and spending more dollars before they move on west on the route,” said Cory Jobe, president and CEO of Great Rivers & Routes.

The group and other tourism bureaus are expecting an uptick in international travelers on Route 66 in the coming years, especially for the anniversary in 2026, Jobe said. International travel to the U.S. hasn’t fully rebounded to levels seen prior to the pandemic. However, they could return at the end of 2024 or the beginning of 2025.

Tourism experts across the state and country expect the 100th anniversary to be a boon for towns along the highway, Jobe said.

“Tourism is really sometimes the only mode of economic development in some of these communities — and Route 66 is the driver,” he said. “We have to continue to invest in small communities.”

In Illinois, the local tourism bureaus along the route have received $4 million over the past three years from the state budget. Jobe said he and the other local directors are hoping that funding continues — and they have future projects in the works.

The biggest project currently funded by this year’s grants is $450,000 for downtown Granite City. The town will revive its old neon Route 66 signs, create a music band stand and put in electric vehicle charging stations, Jobe said.

Another $300,000 will fund the creation of a campground and RV park in Livingston, Illinois. Located about 40 miles northeast of downtown St. Louis, Livingston is home to fewer than 1,000 people.

It’s known for its Pink Elephant — which is both a pink statue and antique mall that sits just north of the interstate. The new campground and RV park will be built adjacent to the well-known site and will also have electric vehicle charging stations.

In the same area, another $45,000 will create a Route 66 drive-through sign at Country Classic Cars just outside Staunton.

Ariston Cafe in Litchfield will use $75,000 to make interior and exterior upgrades. The drive-in theater in Litchfield will get $25,000 to paint a mural. Farther north, the city of Girard and its chamber of commerce will put $20,000 toward entry signs.

“We think Route 66 will be an even greater way to bring more travel back to the Midwest this summer and through 2026,” Jobe said.

Will Bauer is the Metro East reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.