Officials in the city of Springfield, Mo., birthplace of Route 66, realized they were sitting on a cultural goldmine. They are now turning to crowdfunding to begin the restoration of historical relics that the city hopes will increase tourism. Planners are now embarking upon a half-million dollar project to create a roadside park featuring historic signs and buildings. First up is the re-creation of a sign for Red’s Giant Hamburg, a historic diner that was located in the town. The $15,000 sign project is now featured on Springfield-based crowdfunding website Crowdit.com.

There are a lot of historical landmarks in the area, but the city hasn’t done a lot to showcase them, said Ralph Rognstad, director of planning and development for Springfield. “There’s an untapped economic benefit because we aren’t really an overnight destination for people on Route 66,” he said. “They’ll stop in Joplin or St. Louis more than they’ll stop here.”

The city’s “Rail Haven” Best Western Motel gets up to 5,000 European tourists each year, Rognstad said, but creating a new historical area that includes the public in the development process could help turn the city into a bigger tourist attraction. Members of the Route 66 Association agreed and encouraged the city to do more to promote itself as the birthplace of Route 66.

The city funded the driveway and parking for the proposed roadside park, but the project is otherwise unfunded. The city will find money where it can, Rognstad said. After the Red’s Giant Hamburg sign is funded, the city will look to fund additional relics, art projects and structure restorations. The sign has already received $1,000 in funding from regional supermarket chain Hy-Vee.

The city has proposed numerous other preservation projects: an old sign for a motel no longer standing, restoration of several local cottages that would be relocated to the park, a classic roadside service station that would be restored to serve as a visitors’ center, commemorative statues, and placards to go along with the relics. The city also plans to use the park to point people toward other local historical sites, such as the first brewery in Springfield and a local fort from the Civil War.

Rognstad reports that the city didn’t know the project would grow to this size when the idea first circulated two years ago. But the popularity of Route 66, coupled with new funding options on crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Crowdit, have opened up new opportunities to bring these concepts to life.

The Sign

Removed from the town in 1997, Red’s Giant Hamburg was a diner still remembered today as one of the first drive-through restaurants in the country. In 1982, Springfield rock band The Morells filmed an amateur music video about the restaurant on location. This is the kind of history that brings people from across the globe to visit Route 66, Rognstad said, and being able to participate in the process of preserving that history could be an even bigger incentive for people to visit.

There are festivals celebrating the history of Route 66 organized all around Europe, including several groups based in Germany that come to the U.S. to travel the 2,451-mile stretch on motorcycles or in classic American cars. A German or Italian who is now able to donate a few dollars to their project, Rognstad said, can feel more closely connected to the history of the place when they visit.

Crowdit, unlike Kickstarter, allows fundraisers to keep funding for their project even if their initial goal is not met, provided they reach at least 10 percent of that goal. Jason Graf, CEO and co-founder of Crowdit, touts the service as a great alternative to Kickstarter and a good funding source for government projects.

In the case of Springfield’s sign project, Crowdit provided the city with some tips to make its crowdfunding venture a success. Providing a video explanation of the project and offering rewards for donating were both ideas suggested by Crowdit to increase public interest and participation. “The No. 1 reason a business fails in the United States is actually not capital -- although capital runs a close second -- it’s actually experience,” Graf said. “We are creating what we feel to be a virtual incubator.”

A feature not found on Kickstarter is what Crowdit calls “suits,” users who register as advisers who can offer startups mentorship and guidance so their projects can benefit from professional opinion and knowledge.

For government projects in general, Graf said, crowdfunding is a great opportunity to get feedback from the public. Many crowdfunded projects adjust their priorities and goals based on the feedback they receive during the funding process. Graf believes it makes sense for government to adopt this strategy for many of its projects too. In the case of a tourist attraction, like the one being developed by Springfield, public input is crucial because the entire purpose of the project is to attract the public to come visit.

Since it's based in Springfield, Crowdit waived its usual listing fee for the city, Graf said. “We felt this was a good way to give back to the community that raised us and supported us and allows us to make our living here. And we wanted to show support for that project, and especially that project,” he said. “It’s part of our heritage, part of our culture.”

Colin Wood  |  Staff Writer

Colin has been writing for Government Technology since 2010. He lives in Seattle with his wife and their dog. He can be reached at cwood@govtech.com