Clearing the Road to Fun - 405 Magazine

Clearing the Road to Fun

New state tourism director Shelley Zumwalt prioritizes transparency and Oklahoma kindness.

Photo by Charlie Neuenschwander

New state tourism director Shelley Zumwalt prioritizes transparency and Oklahoma kindness.

Shelley Zumwalt, a native Oklahoman, has served in many government positions over her career, from a budget analyst for the Office of State Finance to executive director of the Employment Security Commission. After Jerry Winchester stepped down in the wake of last year’s food and beverage contract scandal, Zumwalt entered the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department as its latest executive director in April 2022. She made it her goal to bring more transparency to the department.

When asked about how she has been trying to meet this goal, Zumwalt cited a recent example.

“When we were announcing the new restaurant vendor that will be open by Memorial Day weekend, we knew that we would get open records requests asking for other bids and the selection process,” she said. “During the press conference, we released online the selection process: all of the bids, the scoring sheets, the evaluation sheets and the final contract with the vendor. We put these things on our website proactively so that anyone could look into the process. We wanted to be 100% transparent… We felt that it was important for the integrity of the process.”

Despite an arrival spurred by troubled circumstances, Zumwalt is enthusiastic about promoting the state of Oklahoma as a destination. “I call my job the state director of fun, which is the best job ever,” she said. “I’m interacting with people on a day that they have been looking forward to. They interact with the government by choice, and it changes the way I approach my job.

“I love promoting Oklahoma — we’re friendly. That’s known. We have 11 different ecosystems, which is less known. It’s one of the only states in the nation to have that. You can live in our biggest city, go 15 minutes outside the city and see the stars. When you are visiting Oklahoma, you can still go off the grid if you want to, and you don’t have to be a hundred miles away from a grocery store. We are a rural state, but what ties us together is the people. We have marshes, plains, deserts and mountains, but what makes a trip to Oklahoma really memorable is our people. I hear that over and over.”

Zumwalt loves reading about Oklahoma in her free time: she mentioned Path Lit by Lightning: The Life of Jim Thorpe by David Maraniss and The Great Oklahoma Swindle: Race, Religion and Lies in America’s Weirdest State by Russell Cobb as favorites. Her fascination with the state serves her as Oklahoma’s biggest booster.

Preparations have already begun for the 2026 Route 66 Centennial, with grants for nearby businesses to improve neon signs and get ready for the celebrations. Zumwalt mentioned that the state anticipates more national and international traffic than ever before, and emphasized the chance for the event to highlight the best of Oklahoma.

“How do we draw them off Route 66 so that they can see more of our people?” she said. “The big question I have, that we are all turning over, is how to show them that Oklahoma is not just a flyover state. It’s a beautiful land with beautiful people.” Zumwalt hopes friendly faces, honest answers and a passion for Oklahoma make that much clear.