Inside the task force that helps vintage motels along Route 66 unite and thrive

There are unique challenges to keeping small businesses alive on the Mother Road today

In the 1950s, Mike Pogue laid the first bricks on the Sunset Motel in Moriarty, New Mexico—the same motel he and his wife Debbie now own and operate.

Mike’s parents opened the first rooms of the motel in 1959, when Mike was in high school, and finished the last rooms 10 years later, when he worked on Wall Street in New York City. Today, the motel is still owned by the people who built the structure 60 years ago.

The Sunset Motel sign with its neon lit up at night.
The Sunset Motel. | Photo: Patrick Coulie

Since then, many Route 66 motels have been turned over to new ownership, closed down, or sitting vacant for years. According to Mike and Debbie, the Sunset Motel is the only Route 66 motel still owned and operated by the same people who opened it during the height of the Mother Road.

But running an independent motel is not easy—or cheap. This is why a new task force has been established to help out vintage motel owners along Route 66.

America’s Main Street

Established in 1926, Route 66 was once known as America’s Main Street. Towns like Moriarty were used during the World War II era for military transport and communications across the country. After the war ended, what was initially used for transportation became a social and cultural hub. Roadside business was booming and travelers flocked to the mom-and-pop roadside attractions.

“Route 66 in 1945 was like Silicon Valley,” Mike says. “It was booming. The world was on the move.”

But, with the passage of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 came the creation of interstate highways that bypassed the historic Mother Road. And when Route 66 was decommissioned in 1985, historic businesses along the route were at risk of becoming obsolete.

Vast roads of Route 66.
Route 66. | Photo: Morgan P. Vickers

When his father died in 1972, Mike decided to purchase the Sunset Motel from his family. He proceeded to run the business from afar for over two decades, contracting managers to run the property. However, because of the decline in Route 66 travelers, the managers lost money every year.

In the mid-1990s, Mike and Debbie took their first shot at running the property in person. But because they were raising their 7-year-old son at the time, they found it too difficult to do long-term.

When their son was in college, they finally felt comfortable enough to give management another chance.

Mike and Debbie Pogue posing behind the front desk of the Sunset Motel.
Mike and Debbie Pogue. | Photo: Patrick Coulie

“I just really wanted to take a shot at the motel. I had been overseeing the motel over the phone for probably seven or eight years, and I just wanted a chance to do it in person again,” Debbie says. “Even though you do the exact same things every day to prepare for a guest, that guest is different. So it makes it a different experience for the manager, the owner. Good or bad, it’s a different experience. At least you’re not a little cog in a wheel.”

Problems facing Route 66 businesses

Running an independent motel is hard work. Route 66 motels are often short-staffed, lesser-known, of varying quality, and in competition with big brand hotel and motel chains. And, for most motel owners, there are no days off.

Since 2010, Mike and Debbie have invested over a half-million dollars into their business in order to renovate the property—or, as Debbie calls it, “retro-vating.” She says, “We weren’t trying to take something that was old and make it look new. We were taking something that was old and keeping it old.”

But Mike and Debbie recognize that not all property owners are able to afford to maintain their motels in a similar way. Many hotels—particularly older hotels that have changed ownership several times over the years—don’t have the business to afford renovations. Or, if they can afford to renovate, sometimes the money must be used for things like new plumbing, rather than fun and flashy additions that would draw in guests.

“I know that there are some properties out there that haven’t been restored, but it’s hard for people who haven’t had a lot of business to spend money to restore a property,” Debbie says. “That’s the biggest problem. You can’t maintain your standards if you don’t have the business, and you can’t upgrade if you don’t have the business.”

The Vintage Motel Task Force arrives

In 2008, the World Monuments Fund (WMF) listed Route 66 on its World Monuments Watch list, highlighting the endangered status of many historic businesses, structures, and sections of pavement on the Mother Road.

In response the nationwide recognition of the potential loss of the historic Mother Road, the WMF sought to create a new organization that would help bring together the formerly disparate state leadership teams along Route 66. This new organization, called the Route 66 Road Ahead Partnership, was founded in 2014 as a way to support preservation, promotion, economic development, cross-state collaboration, and research and education along Route 66.

A typical room at the Sunset Motel, with wood paneling, two full beds, and a lounge area.
A typical room in the Sunset Motel.| Photo: Patrick Coulie

In 2018, Bill Thomas, chairman of the Road Ahead Partnership, recognized a hole in the available resources for historic motel owners along Route 66. The National Trust for Historic Preservation listed vintage motels as one of their 11 most endangered places in 2007, but since then, very little had been done to support these diminishing historic businesses. As a result, Thomas created a specific task force, called the Vintage Motel Task Force (VMTF), assigned to help ensure the sustainability, growth, and preservation of Route 66 motels.

“Route 66 in 1945 was like Silicon Valley. It was booming. The world was on the move.”

In their early meetings, the VMTF—of which Mike and Debbie are founding members—identified several primary challenges of historic motels along Route 66. And in just six months, the growing group of vintage motel owners have introduced a buyer’s network to help reduce the price of goods like toiletries by purchasing them as a group; have set out to create a Route 66 Motel Collection that will consist of a set of properties that have been vetted using specific quality standards; and have introduced the concept of a “motel host”—someone who will come to properties along Route 66 and manage that property for a week or two so the motel owners can take a break.

“If you’ve got a challenge, just remember: There’s wisdom in the group,” Thomas says. “If you go out and give the group an opportunity to think about whatever your challenge is, somewhere there is going to be the wisdom you need to address it, and that’s what I’m finding with the folks on the Task Force.”

Supporting small businesses on the Mother Road

Thomas and the Pogues agree that in order to keep small businesses alive on Route 66, the businesses on the Mother Road have to stay connected and support one another.

“One of the things I am hopeful for is that the work we are doing with the Vintage Motel Task Force will give us ideas that can be replicated in other forms of business,” says Thomas. “There’s no reason why we can’t have a set of restaurants and diners and cafes working together as a collection that meets quality standards and provides you with unique experiences on an original alignment of Route 66.”

The Sunset Motel sign at sunset.
The motel at sunset. | Photo: Morgan P. Vickers

Mike believes the personal touch of Route 66 businesses, and particularly of Route 66 motels, keeps people coming back.

“It’s called paying attention to humanity and recognizing them personally,” Mike says. “Then you carry that on into the room—creating a personal experience that is sparkling clean, good amenities. And if you do that at a reasonable price, they show back up and they tell their friends.”

The Vintage Motel Task Force also emphasizes the economic power of a singular positive experience with a small business on Route 66. To take advantage of this economic power and to mutually support other small businesses on Route 66, this summer the VMTF will start using a discount recommendation program. This will allow Route 66 travelers to get discounts at other small businesses further down the Mother Road.

“If you stay at the Sunset Motel, and you want to know what’s the next [motel] down the line, Mike and Debbie will have several places they can recommend,” Thomas says. “They’ll give you a card so that when you go to that next place, you’ll get a certain percentage off your stay.”

A vintage GTO sits in front of one of the rooms of the Sunset Motel.
The Sunset Motel. | Photo: Morgan P. Vickers

Mike was raised with hospitality in mind, and hopes Route 66 travelers will find joy in visiting vintage motels like the Sunset Motel. He believes the experience of staying at a mom-and-pop motel, grabbing breakfast by the check-in counter, and meeting people from around the world while sitting outside of your room is incomparable.

“In the afternoons when I’d come home from school, I’d be sitting on the couch watching TV and my father would come in and say, ‘Grab a broom and sweep the sidewalks,’” Mike says. “What my father was really saying was, ‘Go out and sweep the sidewalks and meet these people. You’ve got the world passing through right here.’”

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