Rejuvenation is Rolling on the Oklahoma River - 405 Magazine

Rejuvenation is Rolling on the Oklahoma River

A visually striking representative of Oklahoma City’s immense rejuvenation in recent years, and of its equally massive potential for future development into something truly amazing; the Oklahoma River has gone from an unattractive ditch to a home for thrilling fun and world-class athletics … with more to come.

Childhood Memories Involving The Downtown Oklahoma City Portion Of The North Canadian River Are Quickly Joining Reflections On A Bygone Era Like Getting Up To Change The Channel On The Television And Standing Up In The Front Seat Of Your Mom’s Pinto. (Or Providing Clues About The Age Of The Person Doing The Reminiscing.)

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It’s been 10 years now since a seven-mile section of the North Canadian River was renamed the Oklahoma River, the crowning touch of its makeover, a part of the Metropolitan Area Projects (MAPS) capital improvement program. The plan – funded by a temporary one-cent sales tax that was in effect from 1993 to 1999 – also financed upgrades to several recreational, cultural and convention venues (including the construction of the ballpark in Bricktown, the Ford Center and the Ronald J. Norick Downtown Library) as well as the Bricktown Canal, the mile-long conduit between the river and the downtown and Bricktown areas.

In addition to the support of leaders and funds from MAPS, the river had several friends in the corporate and private sectors; companies who saw the chance to make investments in their chosen communities, individuals who held a passion for water sports and a vision for a culture change in the metro.

One such individual was Mike Knopp, Executive Director of the Oklahoma City Boathouse Foundation. As the river redevelopment began to take shape, Knopp (a longtime rowing enthusiast who helped start OCU’s club rowing team, and later left a successful legal career to become their first-ever varsity coach) began to push for the creation of a boathouse, which led to corporate sponsorship and the construction of the Chesapeake Boathouse in 2006. Fellow oil and gas giants Devon and SandRidge followed suit, financing an additional boathouse and the SkyTrail adventure course, respectively, and the Boathouse District was born.

At the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the SandRidge SkyTrail’s new 700-foot zip line that extends across the Oklahoma River (an event which saw Mayor Mick Cornett, Governor Mary Fallin, and Oklahoma treasure Barry Switzer take the first official “zips” across), Knopp reflected on the importance of the river’s role in improving not only the city’s appearance, but its lifestyle opportunities as well.

“Part of the Oklahoma City Boathouse Foundation’s initiative is to get people outside and active.” Knopp says. “We’re trying to infuse an outdoor culture into Oklahoma City.”

Officially established as a U.S. Olympic and Paralympic training site in 2009, the Boathouse District is more than just a diversion opportunity for Oklahoma residents; current and hopeful Olympians train at the state-of-the-art facilities (both boathouses contain fitness centers open to the public) and the river’s reputation as a world-class training ground has spread in the rowing community.

“The rowing world knows about our development, our world-class facilities,” says Sherry Burnett, director of public relations for the Oklahoma City Boathouse Foundation.

“The athletes we have training at the High Performance Center (in the Devon Boathouse) are renowned. Everyone knows that the athletes coming out of our facilities are raising the bar in their classes.” Recent examples of aquatic athletic excellence coming out of Oklahoma City include the qualification of nearly a dozen Oklahoma City athletes to represent the United States in international competition during the USA Canoe/Kayak 2014 Sprint Team Trials, which were held on the Oklahoma River this past April.

For the city, just like the individual, sometimes reinvention is not only good for the soul … it can also help the pocketbook. Just as the Bricktown Canal and Ballpark permeated downtown with a new charm, paving the way for new business and recreation opportunities (property values in Bricktown quadrupled after the start of the original MAPS), the improvements that have allowed the river to become a source of recreation and visual pleasure also have the potential to enhance some Oklahomans’ economic endeavors, both by direct employment opportunities, and by the ripple effect of a new source for startups and boosts to existing companies.

OKC Kayak was already doing a brisk business when the Oklahoma River rebirth led to readily accessible kayaking in downtown Oklahoma City, but manager Ryan Jones credits the river’s renovation with helping to increase kayaking and water sport consciousness among a new sector of the population.

“We’ve been around long before this,” Jones says. “Most of our business comes through word of mouth, or the Internet, but it’s definitely opened some people’s eyes, having it [the river] right here.”

The shop’s downtown location and easygoing atmosphere make it a natural choice when adventurous appetites whetted by experiences at the Boathouse District pave the way to a more lasting habit that might lead beyond the river. Individuals and families can rent kayaks and standup paddleboards through the Boathouse District’s Welcome Center in the Chesapeake Finish Tower, and attend classes or pursue paddling regularly through day or season passes.

“I do have a lot of customers who have memberships at the Boathouse, and either they or their kids have taken classes there, but then they come here, maybe take some of our classes, and purchase a kayak.”

While large-scale, corporate sponsors like the Boathouse District are fantastic kick-offs for developments intended to get residents outdoors and moving, privately owned local businesses like OKC Kayak represent the possibilities for helping to make those changes truly deep and lasting. Jones points to the river’s rebirth as an encouragement both visual and physical.

“Even just driving by it, I love seeing it. Having the Boathouse [District] here in the city has definitely been a major improvement. The health and culture of the city has changed since it came along. There’s a lot of potential, not all of it’s been tapped yet. It’s constantly evolving. It’s exciting, though, having them here, and being able to send customers down, or welcome theirs here.”

Formerly relegated to lakes and rivers off-site, Jones also acknowledges the river’s proximity (OKC Kayaks’ Oklahoma City location is just off of 2nd street on Western, downtown) as a benefit.

“We do utilize the river when customers want to test out a boat. It’s nice having it right there, nice and clean. We can go down real quick, throw it down a boat ramp and try it out. It’s really handy.”

“We’ve always been community- and sport-involved, not just a retail shop. We’re hands-on; we’re kayakers. This is our lifestyle, what we do. Most people aren’t willing to spend $1,000 on a kayak (at a large retail sporting goods store) and then go put the boat in the water and see if they like it. Between us and the Boathouse, people can actually go out and see if they like kayaking before they start making investments.”

The good faith effort and feelings don’t just extend one way; Jones relates that Boathouse associates have reached out and expressed a desire for continued symbiosis as well.

“I’ve had the director of the Boathouse come in, working out ways to help each other. The engineer from the Whitewater Center came in as well, to see what we carry, and just chit chat.”

The whitewater park is one of the future additions planned for the Boathouse District, funded (along with other various river improvements) by MAPS 3. Scheduled to debut within two years, the venue promises to take the riverfront transformation to an entirely new level. Mike Knopp points to the opportunity as one that will help Oklahoma capitalize on a change that has already set it apart in the United States.

“Imagine being in Bricktown, having dinner, and then walking down to zip line across the river, go rock climbing, scale the SkyTrail or go whitewater rafting, kayaking … these are incredible opportunities for Oklahoma City, and the fact of the matter is that there’s not really another urban center area that will have as much outdoor adventure as Oklahoma City will, in less than two years.”

Knopp illustrates how the renewed river has taken the metro from a city in need of a makeover, to a destination that serves as an example for other communities.

“It’s for our residents, but then again, this is going to be something that brings people in from all over, as just another reason to visit Oklahoma City. It’s not like what other cities have. A lot of times, cities try to replicate what other cities have, but what we have is truly unique; there’s not another aquatic venue like the Oklahoma River. The fact that it’s right next to downtown, the fact that we have Olympic athletes training, high adventure and youth activities all occurring … in fact, we have a lot of cities coming here, trying to figure out how they can do something like this with their waterfronts.”

The river’s renovation may have started out as a simple desire to undo the cosmetic damage of a flooding solution, or a means to try and make the metro’s scenery a little less depressing, but it has served as a very visual example of what can happen when basic care and development are used as a springboard for further idealism and dreams.

Few investments lend themselves so easily to metaphor, but the Oklahoma River’s rebirth is a great symbol for the rejuvenation it has caused in our city’s economic outlook and overall morale; from a trickle to a world-class waterway, with whitewater rapids still to come.

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River Primer

Award-winning journalist and author Steve Lackmeyer has written and co-written several books on Oklahoma City history and has been covering the metro’s development for almost two decades. He has a unique perspective on the whole story of the Oklahoma River, and why it’s a true tale of renewal.

“The river was a real river during the first 20 years or so of the city’s life,” Lackmeyer says, dispelling the image of the original North Canadian River as a muddy culvert. “It ran through the areas where we now have things like the Oklahoma City Zoo and the ballpark. As the city developed, the river became prone to severe flooding.”

During the ’20s, the river flooded the Stockyards area and Capitol Hill, causing destruction that led officials to seek funding to remedy the problem. The eventual solution involved changing the river’s course and lining it to ensure drainage, which addressed the flooding dangers, but altered the river’s appearance dramatically.

“They created,” Lackmeyer says, “basically, a ditch.”

No longer a flood threat, the river was now the very opposite; an eyesore which was almost dry for much of the year. It also became an unofficial border between north and south Oklahoma City, and an unintentionally bleak representation of the downtown area.

The effort to mitigate the aesthetic consequences of the re-routing started in earnest in the ’60s, Lackmeyer explains.

“From the 1960s all the way through the 1970s and ’80s, there were repeated efforts to try and figure out a solution to this, to try and bring the river back.”

None of the various strategies suggested bore fruit, but the time period did see the formation of the River Redevelopment Authority, resulting in the creation of some preliminary designs for dams, which were helpful when the MAPS program materialized in the early ’90s. Improvements to the river (and the construction of the Bricktown Canal) were included in the changes funded by the program, and provided the means for the necessary dams, creation of the surrounding trails and landscaping.

Corporate sponsors followed suit, and built on the foundation secured by Oklahomans through MAPS – building the Chesapeake and Devon Boathouses, and most recently, the SandRidge SkyTrail, an 80-foot adventure course featuring rope walks, a zip line and America’s tallest slide.

Having gone from an embarrassment to a full-fledged river (able to provide the means for a host of recreational and competitive water sport endeavors) the revitalized metro section of the North Canadian was re-christened the Oklahoma River in 2004, and continues to thrive as a source of economic and cultural renewal, thanks to Oklahomans committed to making it a representation of their capital city’s ongoing growth and development.

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A Mayoral Minute

In the 10 years since the Oklahoma River’s reinvention was made official with a new name, the metro has seen change and improvements on many fronts. The changes are not limited to its new waterway, but mayor Mick Cornett believes that the city and its river are inextricably linked.

“It’s played a symbolic role on two fronts; if you go back to the original MAPS, the two most popular items on the ballot were the library and the river. The rest of the items needed campaigning and convincing. I think that shows that the people in this community were committed to the river for symbolic reasons, as a source of pride and a way to add appeal.”

Originally just intended to improve the river’s appearance, the city’s measures proved to be fertile ground for further developments, which Mayor Cornett admits exceeded even his expectations.

“I don’t think we believed at the time that Oklahoma’s economy was such that we’d have a lot of economic development through it, but then things started to change.”

Cornett credits the vision of individuals like Mike Knopp and others for seeing the river’s promise as a water sport hot spot (and generating philanthropic interest in investing in such a goal) with the resulting world-class venue. He also points to the importance of such a change to the city’s inner health and image.

“It draws worldwide attention to Oklahoma City, which is good on a couple of fronts. First, we have a reputation of being a dry, dusty state. It’s outdated, and not really accurate, but it’s there. Hosting Olympic caliber [water] events is a new image for us. Secondly, on the health front, these are sports that are getting Oklahomans active in ways we couldn’t have imagined 20 or 30 years ago.”

Another improvement which had its genesis in the 1990s – the relocation of I-40 – exposed several blighted blocks in the downtown area, and the concern about development of this area resulted in the Core to Shore plan, an improvement strategy whose goal is to bring the positive outcome of the river’s redo all the way into the heart of the city.

The MAPS 3 initiative will provide for construction of a new park and convention center in the area, and the hope is that just like with the river, private and corporate interest will follow.

“The park is the city’s investment,” Cornett says. “And I anticipate incredible public investment around it.”

No large-scale plan is ever controversy-free. Disagreements are ongoing between the Oklahoma Department of Transportation and community groups about the best location for the new boulevard and roadway that’s part of the Core to Shore design, but progress and cooperation are still possible; in May of this year ODOT agreed to extend the public comment period (from a mere two weeks) in response to an appeal from advocacy group Friends for a Better Boulevard, in order to hear concerns about the preservation of historical areas and ideas about how construction could best benefit both existing communities and future progress.

Growing pains aside, Mayor Cornett encourages metro residents to take pride in the changes to date, and look to the future with a mix of patience and excitement.

“The park is scheduled to open in 2022. That’s a good timeline. The next decade could easily be when Core to Shore comes to fruition.”

“I’m forever the optimist. I believe the positive things we’re doing today are only going to continue. You have to always be looking for what’s next, what the city is going to require in the next five or six years. A city never reaches its destination; you just continue to build. One of the best perspectives I’ve heard is that we all live in cities we didn’t create. We’re making alterations that are going to affect generations to come, and we hope that others will be able to build on those visions. You have to keep looking out onto the long-term horizon if you want your city to continue past your generation. I think this city has done a really good job of that in the last 20 to 30 years.”

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