The city’s plan to build a Route 66 interpretive center and commercial complex across from Cyrus Avery Plaza could be changing — and in a big way.
Nick Doctor, chief of community development and policy for the city, said Thursday that the city is considering entering into a public-private partnership to construct a Route 66 museum on 5 acres near the Mother Road Market at 11th Street and Lewis Avenue as part of a larger mixed-use development.
“We are exploring a potential partnership at 11th (Street) and Lewis (Avenue) since it was identified as an ideal location for the Route 66 interpretive center in the Tulsa Planning Office’s analysis,” Doctor said. “This potential partnership is still in an early, due-diligence phase, and the city has not made any commitments regarding the location of the Route 66 interpretive center.”
A document sent to prospective architecture firms by ITulsa LLC states the company is building a $40 million mixed-use development on the northwest corner of 11th Street and Lewis Avenue that will include retail, 250 multifamily units and a 12,000-square-foot Route 66 museum.
Chris Ellison, owner of ITulsa, confirmed the project Thursday.
“In terms of the overall development, that is happening,” he said. “Our goal would be to break ground by the end of next year.”
Ellison said he’s excited that the city has an interest in working with him to put the museum in the development. The crucial next step is to find an organization to operate it, he said.
“There is so much history and culture there that we would like to bring to life in a contemporary way,” Ellison said. “And so we think mass density is the answer. You have to have a lot of doors, a lot of things to do.”
Ellison stressed that ITulsa’s only role in the museum would be to provide space and that any public dollars allocated for the museum would go to the operator of the facility, not ITulsa.
Ellison and his wife, Elizabeth Frame Ellison, were partners in the Fuel 66 Food and Beer Garden, which closed recently, and remain partners in Fernweh Shops. She is president of the Lobeck Taylor Family Foundation, which powered the $5.5 million Mother Road Market.
Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society, said his discussions with the city about the Historical Society’s potential role in the museum included talk of the 11th Street and Lewis Avenue property.
“As far as I know, it can be any of the locations that are being considered, but I know that is what we were talking about when we entered the conversation, because that is what the study recommended, the 11th and Lewis area,” Blackburn said.
The city issued a request for proposals in 2013 seeking developers to construct and operate a Route 66 interpretive center and commercial complex on two acres of city land across the street from the East Meets West bronze sculpture at the intersection of Southwest Boulevard and Riverside Drive.
The nonprofit Route 66 Alliance was the only entity to respond, and in 2015 it announced plans to build a 42,000-square-foot interpretive center called the Route 66 Experience.
The goal at the time was to open the $19.5 million facility in 2018. The project called for another $4 million in high-tech, interactive exhibits.
Doctor said that when the Route 66 Alliance’s exclusivity agreement with the city expired in late 2017 without sufficient funding to move the project forward, the city decided to take a fresh look at possible locations for the tourist center.
“No one in Oklahoma is more connected to Route 66 than the Route 66 Alliance’s leaders,” he said. “Knowing the fundraising challenges they experienced, even with those connections, required us to look at new approaches to make this project a reality.”
The city had committed $6.5 million to the project — $1.5 million in Vision 2025 funding approved by voters in 2003, and $5 million from the city’s 2006 third-penny sales tax package.
“Circumstances have changed drastically since 2013, when the RFP was done,” Doctor said. “And certainly when funding was approved in those two packages.”
A Route 66 site study conducted this year by the Tulsa Planning Office and the Indian Nations Council of Governments identified the best possible locations for the tourist center and museum. It used five criteria to make that determination: proximity to landmarks; proximity to hotels, restaurants and vacant property; available incentives, such as opportunity zones; access and connectivity; and density.
The three “hot spots” identified as the best locations for the tourist center were downtown, the 11th Street and Lewis Avenue corridor, including Kendall Whittier, and Route 66 in west Tulsa between 17th and 25th streets.
Ken Busby, executive director and CEO of Route 66 Alliance, said the organization supports any positive developments along Route 66 in Tulsa that promote economic development and tourism.
“So we believe further developing 11th Street and Lewis Avenue to build upon the success of Mother Road Market is a great idea,” he said.
Busby added that he still believes the Route 66 Experience at its proposed location would benefit the city and the state.
“We look forward to continuing our efforts and working with city, county, and state leaders to make it a reality,” he said.
Gallery: 66 photos of life on the Mother Road