A small town success.
As I mentioned in another blog entry, I can’t say enough good things about Williams, AZ, my summer “home town.”
Williams was once a thriving Route 66 community, offering motels, restaurants, and service stations to folks driving between the eastern and western states. Then I-40 came along. East/west traffic sped by and the businesses that catered to the slower, Route 66 traffic folded one after another. But rather than dry up and blow away, Williams cashed in on its location at the junction of I-40 and State Route 64, approximately 60 miles south of the Grand Canyon’s South Rim. It reinvented itself as the “Gateway to the Grand Canyon,” and managed to attract many Grand Canyon visitors.
Williams’ success is due primarily to its strong Chamber of Commerce, which has worked hard to make Williams a destination in itself. While it’s true that Williams doesn’t have anything that can compete with the majestic beauty of the Grand Canyon, it does have many things that the Grand Canyon doesn’t: affordable motel rooms and restaurants, shopping, and a couple of features you can’t find anywhere else: the Grand Canyon Railroad and nightly shootouts.
During the summer months, the Grand Canyon Railroad runs an authentic steam engine from Williams to Grand Canyon Village. If you’re a train buff, this is a train that you simply must see. You can walk around it at the Williams train depot each morning before 10 AM (when it departs for the Grand Canyon) or at the Grand Canyon train depot each afternoon from about noon until 4 PM (when it departs for Williams). The train ride takes just under 2 hours each way and I’ve been told that the train is often robbed by bandits on horseback. I’ve seen the train from the air many times — both at its arrival at the Grand Canyon when I flew for Papillon last summer and enroute between Williams and Howard Mesa on one of my many flights in the area this summer. (As a matter of fact, I saw it again just today.) The Grand Canyon Railroad runs year-round, but in the other three seasons of the year, they run a diesel engine. The ride is just as much fun.
Back in Williams, there’s trouble brewing every night. You can expect a shootout on the street, and fortunately, the local Chamber of Commerce seems to know exactly when and where each shootout will be. You can pick up a list of upcoming shootouts in many of the local businesses, so you can find a good spot for the action. Bring your camera! The town of Williams just doesn’t say it’s a “western town.” It proves it with tourist attractions that have a definite western flair.
Afternoons and evenings in Williams are fun for everyone. There are horse-drawn carriage rides up and down old Route 66. There are shops and restaurants. And you won’t find a “For Rent” or “Not a Retail Outlet” sign anywhere along the main drag.
If you’re looking for a strip mall or a big box store, you won’t find one. And fortunately, Williams keeps its fast food restaurants where they belong: on the I-40 exits. In town, there are locally owned and operated restaurants featuring Mexican, Italian, and American food.
If day-to-day activities in Williams aren’t enough, the town goes the next step by playing host to a number of events that help the local businesses thrive. For example, a few weekends ago, there was a big Harley Davidson rally in town. Every hotel room was booked, every restaurant was filled. A few streets and parking areas were blocked off with event vendors. The event was a big success. Oddly enough, I overheard an attendee talk about it on the last day of the event. She was telling a friend that next year, she’s coming to Williams a week before the event so she can enjoy the town without the crowds.
If you’re planning a trip to the Grand Canyon area and find yourself in Williams, make a stop at the Chamber of Commerce office. It’s full of knowledgeable people who can tell you about all the events and activities. But it’s also a museum, with exhibits about the area — a good place to get acquainted with the town.
I think Wickenburg can learn a lot from Williams. Sadly, Wickenburg seems satisfied to be a pit stop on the road from Phoenix to Las Vegas — rather than a destination worth stopping and staying at.