OKC’s Ongoing Transformation - 405 Magazine

OKC’s Ongoing Transformation

Celebrating our city’s past, present and future.

OKANA Resort & Indoor Waterpark

Celebrating our city’s past, present and future. 

The renaissance that Oklahoma City has experienced in the past four decades is something many people alive today will never have the privilege of living through. Longtime residents will tell you — they hardly recognize our town here in 2022. What once resembled (from certain angles, at least) a large Dust Bowl-era truck stop is now a bustling metropolis gaining national attention for its innovation and growth. Join us as we journey through The Big Friendly’s remarkable transformation; the past we revere, the present we relish and the future we eagerly anticipate.

The Past

Ace Aerial/Oklahoma Historical Society.

Oklahoma is a vast mix of backgrounds incorporating the heritage and traditions of 39 Native American tribal Nations, as well as Western heritage and modern culture. From museums to cuisine to entertainment, cultural identity is deeply embedded in every facet of life and directly tied to population growth. In Oklahoma County, the population has steadily increased from 600,398 in the early 1990s to just shy of 800,000 in 2021, according to the United States Census. While the U.S. population grew 19% during the same period, Oklahoma County grew 24.8% by comparison.

The area has also become more diverse, with approximately 77% of Oklahoma County’s population being white in 1990, compared to 54.5% in 2021. The county’s Black population has held steady at around 15%, its Asian population around 4% and its Native American population between 3% and 5%. However, the Hispanic population grew significantly from being almost nominal to just above 4% to 18.5%.

Oklahoma City’s labor force is becoming as diversified as its population. Employment rose from 468,856 in 1990 to 685,472 by the end of 2021, while the unemployment rate averaged 4.1%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics. Most workers were employed by the federal, state or local government. Production, trade and service industry workers fell close behind, followed by education, transportation, mining and construction.

Architectural styles have also changed in and around the city over the decades, with many of the more notable changes taking place from the late 1800s through 1945. Googie architecture, popular in the 1950s and 1960s, boasts futuristic shapes, neon and bold colors and space-aged designs. Often Googie styles found their way into coffee shops, gas stations and other frequented spaces. Many of these designs are still visible around Oklahoma City and the metro, such as Classen Inn.

Oklahoma City neighborhoods have been known for encompassing an array of styles, including traditional designs that embellish steeply pitched roofs, symmetry and columns. Victorian architecture, popular from the 1830s to the early 1900s, can also be found throughout many neighborhoods. In areas such as the Paseo Art District, Spanish Colonial Revival architecture is more prominent. Boasting terra cotta roofs, arched doorways and curved staircases, these designs can be found all around the U.S. However, this stucco-clad genera is more commonly seen along the California coast and in areas of Florida. 

Sleek, streamlined Art Deco architectural styles were popular in Oklahoma City until the early 1940s, and several notable icons remain around the city today, including the First National Center and the Civic Center Music Hall. Generally, though, Oklahoma is becoming more Contemporary, as befits the modern era.

Change comes in two forms — slow and systematic or deep and sweeping. People acclimate better when introduced to change slowly. At the same time, there is a level of impatience at which we want the Band-Aid ripped off. Cities experience growing pains, and in the early 1990s, Oklahoma City was no different. It was struggling, and voters recognized this. Oklahoma City was on a path to revitalization and improving its national image. It was time for a change, but where to begin?

In December 1993, Oklahoma City implemented a visionary capital improvement program: Metropolitan Area Projects or MAPS. MAPS was an ingenious strategy to help restructure Oklahoma City and devise debt-free solutions to pay for upgrading infrastructure, sports venues, recreation, cultural and convention facilities and entertainment. It was funded with a 1-cent sales tax, which collected more than $309 million over six years. Early projects focused on construction or improvements including the Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark, Bricktown Canal, Cox Convention Center, Paycom Center, Civic Center Music Hall, State Fairgrounds Improvements, Ronald J. Norick Downtown Library, Oklahoma River and the Oklahoma Spirit Trolleys.

The overwhelming success of MAPS created a sense of recognition that opened the floodgates for other areas struggling around the city, one category of which was many of the city’s public schools. Oklahoma City proposed a second MAPS initiative to the voters: MAPS for Kids, which focused on several public school issues. A proposed sales tax increase for an additional seven years would fund $700 million in transportation, technology and construction programs to benefit OKC Public Schools. In 2001, voters approved the plan. Since then, over 400 projects across 23 districts have been completed.

In 2007, city officials began to discuss the implementation of MAPS 3. In 2009, voters agreed to an additional sales tax increase, which ended in 2017. Construction of MAPS 3 projects are expected to continue through 2022, including additions or improvements to the Oklahoma City Convention Center, Scissortail Park, Oklahoma City Streetcar, Riversport Rapids, the Bennett Event Center, senior health and wellness centers, trails, sidewalks and infrastructure, as well as contingency measures.

The Present

Photo provided

The metro area population of Oklahoma City is 1,425,695, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The city itself has gone from the 31st largest in population in the U.S. a decade ago to the 20th largest as of 2022. For the first time in generations, recent college graduates are sticking around and bringing the median age to 34.4.

After several oil booms and busts, it was obvious industry diversification was needed. Growing industries of tech, human services and retail accomplished just that. Several large employers call OKC home to their corporate headquarters: Paycom, Express Employment Professionals, Hobby Lobby, Simple Modern, American Fidelity Assurance and many more. Newly opened businesses employ 5% of the workforce in the Oklahoma City metros. OKC has the fourth most jobs created by new businesses in the nation, according to HireAHelper. 

Urban expansion continues to populate upscale suburbs such as Edmond, Yukon and Norman, while districts and neighborhoods closer to downtown continue to develop distinct vibes. Oklahoma offers residents ease of living, and many see the dollar’s value go further here in allowing the purchase of larger homes. And practically every place in the metro has easy access to an array of bars and restaurants from dives to fine dining, entertainment of every variety, professional sports teams and an array of other activities.

And speaking of activities, the (truly) great outdoors is the place to be for recreation in Oklahoma. OKC and its surrounding communities have made substantial additions or improvements to a plethora of public parks and recreational areas in recent years, meaning that from Lake Overholser to Scissortail Park to the Boathouse District, residents and guests have a broad selection of recreational options. Learn to kayak or hone your skills at white water rafting, go for a walk or run or cycle one of the dozens of dedicated cycling paths. 


Photo by: OAK

The future of our town is blindingly bright. 

Oklahoma City’s sheer size plays a part in its ability to grow — the city encompasses 621 square miles and is spread over four counties. By 2023, the population for the OKC metropolitan area is expected to grow to 1.52 million people. At the current growth rate, the metro would reach 2 million people by 2040, according to calculations by the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce.

Continuing the MAPS progress, in 2021, Oklahoma City proposed and passed a new 1-cent sales tax increase that would span eight years and fund 16 new debt-free projects. MAPS 4 is focused primarily on neighborhood and human needs. Projects include animal shelters, beautification, the Clara Luper Civil Rights Center, Diversion Hub, Fairgrounds Coliseum, Family Justice Center operated by Palomar, homelessness initiatives, Innovation District, mental health and addiction help, a multipurpose stadium, new parks, senior wellness centers, sidewalks, bike lanes, trails and streetlights, plus transit youth centers.

“Cities across this country would consider any one of the MAPS 4 projects to be a major achievement, and we have 16 such achievements arriving in the decade to come,” said Mayor David Holt in his 2022 State of the City address.

Additional large-scale up-and-coming projects outside the MAPS umbrella include the $400 million OKANA Resort & Indoor Waterpark near the First Americans Museum along the south shore of the Oklahoma River (see sidebar). The resort will feature an 11-story, 404-room hotel and proximity to downtown Oklahoma City and the Boathouse District.

A recent announcement by the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden outlined plans for $71 million in new construction until 2028. A new orangutan climbing structure at the Great EscApe and a special Galapagos tortoise habitat in the Children’s Zoo, as well as an intriguing Amphibian Plaza with a walk-through water garden with diverse amphibians and carnivorous plants, are among the projects that will be completed soon.

Economists and local experts believe west downtown development could skyrocket with the relocation of the Oklahoma County Detention Center. Work is well underway at 700 West Apartments, and another new apartment complex is being planned across the street.

The expanding Oklahoma City Innovation District plans to serve as a hub for cooperation, creativity, opportunity and economic development. East of downtown OKC, between NE 13th and 16th streets to the north, NE 4th Street to the south and Robinson and Lottie avenues to the west and east, the district spans an area of about 1.3 square miles. Encompassing the Oklahoma Health Center, University Research Park, the Oklahoma Aerospace Institute for Research and Education (OAIRE) and many other organizations, the district is home to the city’s bioscience industry, where numerous institutions are already engaged in groundbreaking research and supporting entrepreneurship and innovation.

OKC’s future can be seen in the stars — quite literally. Facilities like Prairie Surf Studios and the incentives of the Filmed in Oklahoma Act of 2021 have boosted TV and film production in the state, including Sylvester Stallone’s “Tulsa King,” which recently premiered on Paramount+. Oklahoma City is slowly becoming a go-to location for Hollywood, with exciting future projects in the works. Filming of TV and movies throughout the city is likely to become a familiar sight for residents in the future. 

Civic Center Music Hall

This Art Deco treasure was the largest venue in OKC when it was completed in 1937, and while its interior has been transformed and reimagined over the years, its original limestone facade still stands as an elegant landmark of the city’s past. Funded by the New Deal, the building initially served as OKC’s Municipal Auditorium for touring performers, sporting events and classical concerts. It was also home to the Oklahoma Art Center, the predecessor of today’s OKCMOA. A 1966 renovation reconfigured the theater and instituted the hall’s current name. It presented shows from Elton John, Pink Floyd and Bob Dylan before the first MAPS initiative dramatically remodeled the interior to accommodate the performing arts and reopened in 2001. The Civic Center Music Hall now houses the city’s premier arts organizations, such as the OKC Philharmonic, OKC Ballet, OKC Broadway, the Lyric Theatre, Painted Sky Opera, Canterbury Voices and Oklahoma City Repertory Theater.

Bricktown Canal

When the first MAPS initiative passed in 1993, the Bricktown Canal was the centerpiece of a multimillion dollar investment to reshape OKC’s neglected warehouse district into a shining entertainment hub of civic pride. Drawing inspiration from the San Antonio River Walk, city officials hoped the waterway would breathe life and excitement into the developing area. According to the Oklahoman, even before the canal officially opened in July 1999, curious visitors would climb over construction fences to walk along the water. With the aquatic attraction came more restaurants and entertainment spots along the path, and the canal quickly became a symbol of Oklahoma City’s renaissance. Today, the Bricktown Canal is one of OKC’s premier destinations and an ever-flowing source of inspiration for future city-changing projects. 

Scissortail Park

With the September opening of the south section of Scissortail Park, the heart of Oklahoma City has a communal hub that spans both sides of the river. What was once a semi-empty stretch of development sprouted into a 70-acre urban playground outfitted with an outdoor stage and lawn, paddleboat lake, children’s play areas with a splash pad, a location-specific restaurant in Spark and multiple sports courts, all united by the Skydance Bridge. City leaders hope that the growth and vibrancy doesn’t stop at the park; they believe Scissortail will attract more businesses to the area, and spots such as Social Capital and the Omni Hotel have already popped up alongside it. And the park itself still has exciting plans, including a possible renovation of the historic Union Station as an events space. From its night markets to its recreational sport leagues and seasonal celebrations to year-round activities and amenities, Scissortail Park is helping bring all of Oklahoma City together.

Clara Luper Civil Rights Center

When Oklahoma City civil rights activist Clara Luper purchased the building that would become home to the city’s NAACP Youth Council in 1967, she envisioned an educational community space to “provide opportunities for deprived children to grow up properly, to learn the value of self-help and to see the adult world supported by a sense of belonging.” Now, a privately funded renovation of the original Freedom Center seeks to further this mission along with MAPS 4 plans to construct the Clara Luper Civil Rights Center, which will include physical archives of the civil rights movement and an events space for dinners, lectures and classes. In addition to historical preservation and educational programming that will “honor the past,” the complex’s planned cafe and outdoor area is hoped to foster a “community gathering place” to empower “the next generation of leadership,” according to the nonprofit Freedom Center of Oklahoma City. The $25 million public investment in the northeast side is an encouraging sign that the city views every community as a crucial part of its future.

Close to a year after the First Americans Museum opened south of the river, the Chickasaw Nation and the City of Oklahoma City broke ground on the OKANA Resort and Indoor Waterpark, a future $400 million entertainment complex next to the museum complete with a 404-room hotel, conference center, outdoor beach and lagoon, entertainment center, golf simulator, restaurants and Native American retail, plus the namesake two-level waterpark. Officials believe the project will open in a few years and bring in millions of dollars to the city’s economy. Not only is the massive development expected to be a “world-class” destination that will boost tourism in OKC, it will solidify the city’s status as “the nation’s capital for Native & Indigenous people,” according to a tweet by Mayor David Holt. 

By the numbers

  • 28,000 attendees at Scissortail Park’s grand opening, where Kings of Leon performed.
  • 46 new businesses working in Oklahoma since 2021.
  • 2,198 to 4,580. The number of hotel rooms in downtown OKC from May 2018 to July 2022.
  • Almost $1.1 billion. The project amount of money raised for the MAPS 4 initiative.
  • 493 arts, culture, and humanities nonprofit organizations in the Oklahoma City metro.
  • 48.6% The percentage of growth of the Oklahoma City metro’s population from 1990 to 2020.