Here’s Hoping the Launching Pad Can Get Back on Course

commentary editorial opinion

By Nick Reiher

There was such promise.

Two partners in life and in business pooled most if not all of their savings to bring a longtime Wilmington and Route 66 icon back to life.

I remember being at the Launching Pad several times before it closed in 2013. It never seemed to stay open very long. The only time we at the Herald News would get interested is when someone would steal the rocket from the Gemini Giant. Rarely did there seem to be a connection to Route 66.

But in 2017, I was invited to a Route 66 gathering in the lower level of the Joliet Area Historical Museum/Route 66 Welcome Center in Joliet. There, I met new owners – Holly Barker and Tully Garrett – who were explaining their plan to excited officials of “The Mother Road.”

They would initially reopen it as a Welcome Center, with info about not only about Wilmington and the Launching Pad, but other sites along the route.

They put out a visitor book, and within only a week, they had names from Spain, Canada, Ireland, Slovakia, Denmark, Italy, France, Brazil, Tel Aviv, The Netherlands, Hong Kong, Australia and the United Kingdom.

Meanwhile, Tully and Holly, with the help of donations from the community and other businesses, were tearing up the place, putting in new stuff, turning it into a diner again. They were gathering info on what people wanted to see served there.

I would learn later they paid $800 for a two-day seminar at the Vienna headquarters in Chicago for how to build a proper Chicago hotdog. Then, they could post the iconic Vienna beef sign. One of the few places south of I-80 where you could get a proper hot dog.

Jump ahead, and Holly and Tully often had long lines for those dogs, as well as other sandwiches and drinks, including shakes and their pineapple whip.

The Launching Pad was featured in TV shows and other media here and overseas, where many people have much more of an interest in Route 66 than we seem to here.

At off hours, Holly was using a portion of the building for meetings of her growing Grief Anonymous group. Both she and Tully had lost their spouses to cancer, and this was Holly’s way of helping others.

The sky – and this is the last pun I will use for this sad story – was the limit. I would pop in weekly to drop off a short stack of Farmers Weekly Reviews, which Holly often would put directly on the diners’ tables. And if the line wasn’t too long, I would return with a Chicago hotdog.

Then, I’m not sure what happened. I think a lot of it was having to close the place during COVID, something that proved the death knell for many restaurants and other businesses. And when I stopped by, I could see the smiles they began with were replaced by anxiety and strain. I assumed there were a lot of bills and no money coming in.

Efforts to reopen were furtive at best. And, as Holly and Tully each began to suffer their own illnesses, things just blew up.

Tully withdrew to deal with his medical issue. Holly, who lives next door to the restaurant, became anything but, sometimes parking a car in front of the Giant so visitors couldn’t stand near to take pictures.

So, naturally, Holly got, and is getting, torn up a social media. Too many people don’t understand her health issues; worse, too many do, and if they ever had any empathy, it has been worn down.

Now, she put the restaurant up for sale with a $1.4 million asking price, several times what they paid for it. But they also put a lot of their money into it and a helluva lot of sweat equity.

The community argues, what about all that money that was donated toward all that work?

I don’t quite get it. Those of you who donated, did you expect to get it back? Was it an investment for you on which you expected a return? Or did you do it because you wanted to help return a local, unofficial, landmark to icon status?

Or are you just trying to punish her for her erratic behavior?

Either way, I hope the Joliet Area Historical Society, with a $1 million state grant, can buy the site and use it for a Route 66 welcome center. Thanks to intermodal traffic, we are losing a lot of our quaint land along the local route. Midewin and the veteran’s cemetery are getting squeezed.

I hope Holly and Tully take the money and can move on to the next chapter in their lives. I thank them for what they did, for their friendship, and I pray they find peace and good health.

Nick Reiher is editor of Farmers Weekly Review.






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