Claremore Daily Progress

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December 31, 2010

Catoosa seeks Blue Whale improvements

CATOOSA — It’s a state icon quickly making a national resurgence. But Catoosa officials don’t want to stop there.

By February, officials hope to know whether a $600,000 grant will help them purchase the Route 66 Blue Whale and ultimately expand its parking lot, install decorative signage and build a trail from a nearby grocery store.

The city submitted its final application Thursday after state transportation officials put Catoosa on the short list for the Transportation Enhancement Grant, which is awarded each year to municipalities for walking trail projects.

“Trails are just the thing right now that everyone is looking to for health, obesity, entertainment,” Mayor Rita Lamkin said. “The state and the feds recognize that, and that’s why they’re giving out these grants.”

Lamkin said national interest in the Blue Whale has been on the rise since Time Magazine featured it in its Top 50 American Roadside Attractions in July. With that, local excitement is skyrocketing.

The whale has hosted weekly show and tells and Route 66 souvenir sales, and even held the city’s first “Lights On” Christmas celebration, where members of the Catoosa Arts and Tourism Community decked it out in Christmas lights that will stay up until Monday.

“The whole community has embraced all over again the blue whale,” Lamkin said. “America is still in love with Route 66. Europeans, easterners, Canadians — people from all over the world come here to go down Route 66.”

The whale has been privately owned since it was built in the 1970s, and Lamkin said only one member of the owning family — Catoosa resident Dick Belt — survives.

Belt told city officials he’s willing to sell if the city vows to preserve the landmark. He owns the whale, the parking lot and surrounding land — all of which city officials hope to buy.

With excitement increasing, Lamkin believes the time is right.

“We have an opportunity with one remaining family member who’s the sole owner of all of it now,” she said.

The Oklahoma Department of Transportation accepted the city’s preliminary grant application this fall. Now a state committee must decide which cities will get the money.

“I’m just hoping the committee looks at it and sees this for what it is. Oklahoma cannot afford to allow (the Blue Whale) to go into disrepair in the event that the family can’t keep it up,” Lamkin said. The committee is “going to be bombarded … they’ll have more applications than they can grant.”

The grant won’t only take care of buying the whale. It also would fund a path to the Reasor’s at the corner of Rice Street and Highway 66.

City officials also plan to pave and expand the whale’s parking lot and improve the entrance on Highway 66.

Lamkin said the parking lot is in disrepair and far too small.

“Sometimes it gets so full that people can’t get in there,” she said.

The entire project, purchase included, would cost $720,000. The city would pay $120,00 of that — a bargain price, Lamkin said.

“The Blue Whale is recognized as one of the 10 most sought-after destination points on Route 66,” she said. “It puts Catoosa on the map for something.”

Rogers County commissioners are set to vote Monday on whether they will submit a letter of support for the project. The ODOT grant committee requires cities to obtain letters of support from local or state officials for their proposed projects.

Grant or no grant, the Catoosa Chamber of Commerce and volunteers will continue their ongoing refurbishment of the whale, with fresh paint and other minor improvements, Lamkin said.

She said there are also plans to replace the deteriorating former Animal Reptile Kingdom, a model of an ark, with a replica.

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