Oklahoma City, just 160 miles due south of Wichita, is turning out to be an unexpected treasure.
From quirky festivals and dozens of restaurants to outdoor recreation and romantic riverboat rides, a revitalized downtown Oklahoma City boasts so many attractions it is quickly becoming a favorite weekend destination for Oklahomans and Kansans alike.
“To be very honest, OKC has really hit a boom,” said Tabbi Burwell, communications manager for the Oklahoma City Convention and Visitors Bureau. “I’ve lived here my whole life, and now I want to come hang out in OKC. You can do so many things in one weekend downtown as opposed to driving all over the state.”
The boom began in 1993, when a voter-approved 1-cent sales tax increase resulted in upgraded sports, recreation, entertainment, cultural and convention facilities.
The Metropolitan Area Projects program helped Oklahoma City embark on a nearly 11-year improvement plan that included a new ballpark; renovation of the convention center; improvements at the state fairgrounds; the creation of the Bricktown Canal, which links downtown, Bricktown (a popular restaurant and nightlife section) and the Oklahoma River; a new library; and new trolleys.
“Oklahoma City 20 years ago was pretty down on its luck,” said Chad Huntington, general manager of the Water Taxi at Bricktown and the Safari Voyage at the OKC Zoo. “It had just been through an economic meltdown ... and had quite a few challenges related to downtown. This city in general was in kind of a funk.”
Today, however, it’s a different story. The initial MAPS program was so successful, voters approved a second MAPS program to revitalize public schools in Oklahoma City, and a third program is underway that will, among other projects, see a 40-acre public park downtown; several new walking, biking and running trails; a streetcar program; and senior health and wellness centers.
“The whole downtown is really coming alive,” Huntington said. “We’ve had a low profile for a long time. People have thought, ‘Why visit Oklahoma City?’ But then they get here and see what’s happened in the last two decades. It’s been one of the bigger success stories in urban redevelopment in the U.S.”
The change has not gone unnoticed. Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer, Wichita City Council members and those interested in Wichita downtown redevelopment have examined Oklahoma City closely over the years and have even mirrored some of its success when Sedgwick County used a short-term sales-tax initiative and community partnerships to build Intrust Bank Arena, which opened in 2010.
But for Oklahoma City, the revitalization efforts over the past 20 years have elevated a quiet and sleepy city into an energized, busy, community-oriented downtown playground with something fun for just about every age group. Consider just a few big events happening this summer:
• The 2014 Phillips 66 Big 12 Baseball Championship at the Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark May 21-25.
• The family-friendly Rock the Boat festival on June 7 at the Bricktown Canal.
• The deadCENTER Film Festival June 11-15.
• The Frontier City Summer Concert Series and fireworks on July 5.
• The H & 8th Night Market, a family- and pet-friendly street festival featuring food trucks and entertainment, from 7 to 11 p.m. the last Friday of each month on Hudson Avenue.
“There’s lots of energy here,” said Elizabeth Newton, event coordinator with Downtown Oklahoma City. “In our downtown area, we have eight different unique character districts, all within walking distance. With so much to do here, from eating to seeing a movie to water taxi rides ... there are lots of areas to explore.”
One big draw is the Oklahoma City waterway, part of the MAPS project. A canal now runs through Bricktown, providing a 1.6-mile, 40-minute round-trip leisure ride that stops at shops and restaurants along the way. A day pass allows users to hop on and off the water taxis as desired.
And there’s more to come. Plans include a $32 million Whitewater Rafting and Kayaking Center, a large circular outdoor whitewater rafting course being built on the side of a 20-foot hill, that is slated to open in early 2015.
“It’s a really neat thing to see people discover downtown,” Huntington said. “OKC continues to surprise visitors, and I think it will be like that for awhile.”