By Lisha Newman
Published July 07, 2014
In 1889, as cannons boomed, 50,000 people raced across 2 million acres of Unassigned Lands to claim free 160-acre lots in what would become the state of Oklahoma. In an athletic version of the Land Run 125 years later, the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder, led by MVP Kevin Durant, race up and down the court to the frantic cheers of thousands of Oklahomans. The rush to get ahead and succeed has been a hallmark of the people of remarkable Oklahoma.
“Ten or 15 years ago we spent most of our time explaining where in the country Oklahoma was,” said Todd Stallbaumer, consumer and trade marketing director for Travel Oklahoma. “Now, people have caught on to the dynamic events happening here. The Thunder coming to Oklahoma City changed people’s knowledge of the city. Our Native American tribes are more engaged in marketing to groups and creating attractions.”
Both Oklahoma City and Tulsa are two great American cities that call Oklahoma home.
I learned the secret of Oklahoma City’s momentum when I visited the city. The area has benefited tremendously from a program called Metropolitan Area Projects (MAPS), a jolt of economic development paid for with a temporary one-cent sales tax that generated hundreds of millions of dollars and even more in private investment. It has led to dozens of construction projects or renovations that transformed the city and heightened its spirit and confidence.
The city has 12 distinct neighborhood districts full of entertaining things to see and do. The area that benefited the most from MAPS was Bricktown, near downtown. A group of 40 can enjoy a narrated canal cruise in a water taxi through Bricktown while passing restaurants, bars, shops, sports venues and hotels. Along the way, they get the best views of the realistic, full-size sculptures that depict Oklahoma’s Land Run.
Bricktown has plenty of live music. Music fans should also visit the nearby American Banjo Museum for a look and a listen.
Nearby is the Boathouse District, a U.S. Olympic training site for canoeing, kayaking and rowing, but there’s also plenty for amateur groups to do.
“It offers different sports people can participate in,” said Sherry Burnett, director of public relations for the Oklahoma City Boathouse Foundation. “As a group, get into a dragon boat or get group passes for Riversport Adventures, which gives you fun on the water and on the world’s tallest sky trail. There’s also a new 700-foot zip line across the river for those who want that adrenaline rush.”
Groups can take a guided tour of the facilities or have lunch on-site. The organization also offers team-building and leadership-training activities for interested groups.
Beyond Bricktown, I found live horse racing and casino gaming at Remington Park. Located in the city’s Adventure District, Oklahoma’s first racetrack features thoroughbred racing from August to December and quarter horse racing from March to June. The casino has 750 gaming machines, slots and video poker. There are several full-service restaurants, half a dozen bars and attractive dining rooms and luxury suites for groups.
“We offer a unique entertainment value. We accommodate any group’s special request,” said Christy McCormack, group sales manager for Remington Park. “We customize almost anything.”
For more perspective on Oklahoma’s past, I visited the Oklahoma History Center, a place that celebrates Oklahoma’s people, places and events with Smithsonian-quality exhibits. The 50 topics and 2,000 artifacts are enlightening.
Art lovers enjoy the Oklahoma City Museum of Art and its exhibitions from America and the world. During my visit I saw exhibits such as “Ansel Adams: An American Perspective,” “Gods and Heroes: Masterpieces From the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris” and “Illuminations: Rediscovering the Art of Dale Chihuly.” Speaking of Chihuly, there’s a breathtaking 55-foot, multistory glass tower of his art just inside the museum’s front door.
Groups learn how our nation’s weather is tracked and how severe-storm warnings are issued at the National Weather Center at the University of Oklahoma in suburban Norman.
“We want them to leave knowing about the research going on to help protect and save lives,” the center’s public relations representative, Melissa Bird, told me during my visit.
For a deep and reflective experience, I made sure not to leave Oklahoma City without stopping at the inspiring National Memorial and Museum, which was created as a result of the 1995 bombing of the city’s Murrah Federal Building. The bombing killed 168 people, injured 700 and traumatized the community. The memorial, which can be toured by groups, is a silent tribute to victims and everyone linked to the tragedy.
The museum has a gallery of honor in remembrance of the victims. It explores the background of terrorism in the United States; details the bombing; covers the chaos, confusion, rescues and survivors; and tells about the world’s reaction to the bombing. The exhaustive criminal investigation and lessons learned from the tragedy are also explored. The museum will install updates just ahead of the bombing’s 20th anniversary in 2015.
Oklahoma City has recently progressed a great deal.
“We hear that all the time,” said Tabbi Burwell, communications manager for the Oklahoma City Convention and Visitors Bureau. “People say, ‘Wow, I never thought it’d be like this.’ They’re very surprised.”
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