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City Gets Economic Kick From Route 66 Rendezvous

The annual celebration of the old highway attracts classic cars, a half-million fans and millions of dollars to San Bernardino.

September 19, 2003|Hugo Martin | Times Staff Writer

It started as a modest car show to celebrate historic Route 66 at a dusty regional park in San Bernardino. The event featured 300 or so classic cars and attracted about 4,000 spectators.

Fourteen years later, the Route 66 Rendezvous has become the city's foremost annual celebration. This year's four-day event will feature nearly 2,500 classic cars, trucks and hot rods and attract more than 580,000.

The festival is one of several positive signs that things might be looking up for this former railroad town, which is struggling with a slumping economy and a sleepy, aging downtown.

Event coordinators estimate that the fans and participants will fill nearly every downtown hotel, crowd into restaurants, buy armloads of souvenirs and, in the process, put nearly $38 million into the local economy. The festival is crammed into 35 blocks of downtown San Bernardino.

"It's turned out to be our premier event," City Councilman Neil Derry said. "For the downtown area, that is the major bright spot."

But Derry hopes the event can do more than inject money into the local economy. He believes it can boost the city's image and entice entrepreneurs to invest in San Bernardino.

John Husing, an economist and expert on Inland Empire businesses, agrees.

"There was a time that no one would go to downtown San Bernardino because they didn't think it was safe," he said. "It can't help but improve the city's image to have 200,000, 300,000 or 400,000 people walking around here."

The city has been struggling to rebound from a series of devastating economic blows. In the early 1990s, Santa Fe Railroad's West Coast repair yard in downtown San Bernardino, which had operated for more than 100 years and employed more than 4,000 workers at its peak, was relocated to Topeka, Kan. In 1994, Norton Air Force Base closed, taking with it 10,000 jobs and the loss of a host of allied businesses, from suppliers to restaurants.

Recently, the city has endured the closure of several downtown storefronts and the news that the last major anchor is abandoning the city's struggling Carousel Mall.

But there are signs of improvement. A Texas-based company has been hired to redevelop the 2,200-acre former Norton Air Force Base. One of the tenants that is expected to open next year is toy maker Mattel's 1.2-million-square-foot warehouse.

The Route 66 Rendezvous has become another bright spot. The Thursday-through-Sunday event is no longer just a gathering for car buffs. It has become a popular family-oriented attraction that now includes a carnival, concerts, a petting zoo and a bicycle stunt show. Admission is free.

This year's event marks the 30th anniversary of the release of "American Graffiti," the film classic that celebrated the cruising lifestyle in the 1950s. Three actors from the movie -- Candy Clark, Mackenzie Phillips and Bo Hopkins -- will sign autographs throughout the weekend.

But the stars of the weekend are still the cars. Each night, from 6 to 10, classic cars, hot rods and trucks will cruise around downtown. On Friday night, drivers will compete in a "burnout" and "flame throwing" contest at the nearby Orange Show Speedway.

Route 66 is the historic "mother road" from Chicago to Los Angeles that has been celebrated in books ("The Grapes of Wrath"), song ("Get Your Kicks on Route 66") and TV ("Route 66").

Business owners in San Bernardino say they are now getting their kicks.

Jim Deskus, general manager of the 230-room Radisson Hotel, said his establishment was booked for the event last year and is full this year. And Deskus predicts the same for next year.

"It's the biggest three-day event we get here," he said.

Annie Padilla, owner of Las Hermanas restaurant near downtown San Bernardino, said her business just opened in January but said she has been warned that she can expect to be busy. She has shortened her menu and ordered extra food, just to be safe.

"We are planning to have a good turnout," she said.

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