Route 66 rides into the crowdfunding age

By Cale Guthrie Weissman , written on October 7, 2013

From The News Desk

It’s a fact: American cities don’t have enough money. More and more we read about cities filing for bankruptcy, or being saddled with budget deficits. These economic woes mean that necessary urban renewal projects sometimes get thrown to the wayside.

Now cities are looking for new ways to fund urban renewal projects. For example, there’s Springfield, Missouri. Springfield is the third largest city in the state, with a population of about 160,000. It houses a dilapidated national landmark US Route 66, which is becoming even more decrepit each day. In response, the city is now hosting a crowdfunding campaign with the intent of revitalization.

Springfield is famously considered the birthplace of US Route 66, as that is where the name was decided upon in 1926. Route 66 was once considered the “Main Street of America,” because it connected Chicago all the way to Santa Monica. Today, the highway, or at least the part that runs through Springfield, isn’t doing too well.

Cora Scott, Springfield’s director of public engagement, told me that “the city wanted to come up with a way to clean up” its blighted section of the historic road. This ragged section is a 12-mile stretch of Route 66 once considered hallowed historic ground. Where the highway was once a tourist attraction with shops and landmark diners, now it has fallen into disrepair.

According to Scott, revamping this stretch would cost about $500,000.

Instead of begging from the state, the city decided to turn to its citizens. Last week it launched a campaign on the crowdfunding site CrowdIt. With an initial intended goal of $15,000 to rebuild a replica sign of a beloved burger place on the city, Red’s, the campaign has already raised more than $10,000 in less than a week.

Yet even with this injection of confidence, Scott says that she is “very cautious about how much money [the city] can raise.”

The city decided to use CrowdIt because it is a Springfield-based business. Scott saw this opportunity as a way to rally local commerce to get the word out about Springfield. And Crowdit has met this with generosity; it is not charging the city any fees for this project.

CrowdIt CEO Jason Graf told me that he saw this as “a unique opportunity to give back and support the city.” To Scott, this showcases how well the city and its businesses interplay. “We have a very collaborative community,” she told me.

This isn’t the first instance of a citywide crowdfunding campaign. The Rhode Island city of Central Falls, which filed for bankruptcy a few years back, took to platform Citizinvestor to install trash cans and recycling bins in a local park. Even the New York City Council has an entire Kickstarter page devoted to urban development projects in the city.

If this continues to become a trend, maybe urban renewal won’t be such a back-burner issue for so many towns. But, of course, that would also presuppose that residents would be okay with regularly donating to such projects beyond merely paying their taxes. As wonderful a thought as that is, it seems highly unlikely.