Few U.S. cities have had such a vivid history of highs and lows as Oklahoma City. A visitor to today’s vibrant downtown and upscale suburban neighborhoods would be hard pressed to imagine Oklahoma City in the 1830s when thousands of Cherokees were forced to give up their land east of the Mississippi and walk here during what has become known as the “Trail of Tears.”
Sixty years later, settlers eager for a piece of the West rushed here to claim the “unassigned lands” that made up much of the territory. The new arrivals, dubbed “Sooners” in a nod to those who crossed into the territory in the hours before it was officially permitted, quickly donned cowboy hats and embraced the open land, changing weather and big sky. The population of hard-working farmers and stalwart ranchers continued to increase until Oklahoma City was officially established in 1889. Eighteen years later, in 1907, Oklahoma gained statehood and Oklahoma City, its biggest town with almost 60,000 residents at the time, took over the role of state capital from the nearby town of Guthrie.
The city, which prospered as a rail and stockyards center and grew richer when oil was discovered in town in 1928, was poised to become one of the biggest cities in the Midwest until the Depression hit, and thousands of residents fled the dry, dusty plains for the greener pastures of California. It took years for Oklahoma City to recover from that financial downfall, and only the post-World War II military bases in the area saved it from economic ruin. As recently as the early 1990s, Oklahoma’s capital remained economically stagnant. Nearby Air Force bases offered some employment, but the city was losing its downtown core as its vintage Victorian homes and city shops fell to the wrecking ball under hastily arranged urban renewal demolitions.
Revitalization arrived in the 1990s in the form of the Metropolitan Area Projects, a large-scale effort to fund a new ballpark, a canal through the Bricktown neighborhood, a new library and indoor arena, and the restoration of many of the city’s remaining historic buildings. The 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building that killed 168 people, the deadliest terrorist event on U.S. soil at that time, took a toll on the city. Residents suffered through indignity, anger, loss and sadness, but the “Sooner” spirit kicked in and, within a few years, a new government center was constructed near the original site, and a poignant National Memorial now graces the lawn outside the building.
Today, Oklahoma City’s growth and economic surge, so prevalent in the 1990s, has slowed somewhat, with an average unemployment rate of about 4.5 percent (still less than the U.S. average). New home permits were slightly down from 2006 to 2007, as was city hotel occupancy, although with a $74 average daily room rate, Oklahoma City is a relatively inexpensive city to visit. It is also one of the best places to buy a home, with the average price of a new single family home at $214,027. As an example of Oklahoma City’s lower cost of living, an after-tax income of $44,000 here affords the same standard of living as an after-tax income of $100,000 in Manhattan.
The aviation and aerospace industries account for more than 265 firms and 38,000 workers, including Tinker Air Force Base and the large FAA Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center, but the biggest increase in employment has come from the natural resources and mining sector, which added about 2,400 new jobs in 2006 alone, more than 23 percent over the previous year. The growth in this area, with gas and oil exploration attracting more and more firms to the city, continued during 2007.
Oklahoma City’s economic development programs are spurred by several groups, not the least of which is Forward Oklahoma City I and II, part of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, which helps local businesses expand and attracts new firms to the area. Four of the nation’s fastest growing firms are located here, including DataStream Market Intelligence, Long Wave, Eagle Systems and Services, and Partners Human Resources.
All this corporate expansion has fueled local arts and cultural venues as well, resulting in the Downtown Arts District, the new Civic Center Music Hall and Oklahoma City Museum of Art, and the expanded National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.
This deluxe property opened last year after a $16-million investment converted Oklahoma City’s first skyscraper into the city’s first boutique hotel. With 108 spacious guestrooms on 10 floors, there is plenty of space here for relaxing. Guestrooms are equipped with the expected high-tech amenities including wireless Internet and 32-inch flat-screen TVs. Luxury linens up the comfort factor.$$$
15 N. Robinson Ave.
tel 405 601 4300
THE SKIRVIN HILTON
Located downtown, next to the Cox Convention Center and within walking distance of most downtown attractions and meeting venues, the hotel’s 225 guestrooms are equipped with wireless Internet, 42-inch plasma flat-screen TVs, and large desks with two phones, including one cordless. A fitness center, swimming pool and business center are also on property.$$
THE SKIRVIN HILTON
One Park Avenue
tel 405 272 3040
WAT ERFORD MARRIOTT
With 165 guestrooms, 32 suites, and 10 meeting rooms, the 4-diamond Waterford is one of the leading business hotels in the city. Located near the upscale Nichols Hills shopping center, and close to downtown, the hotel’s Waterford Lounge is a good place for a business lunch or dinner.$$
WAT ERFORD MARRIOTT
6300 Waterford Blvd.
tel 405 848 4782
MICKEY MANTLE’S STEAK HOUSE
The former New York Yankees star was born in Spavinaw, Okla., and attended school in Commerce, Okla. — both about two hours east of Oklahoma City. Located on the canal in Bricktown across from the AT&T Bricktown Ballpark, Mickey Mantle’s offers the real deal when it comes to “Cowboy Cut” rib eye, New York strip steak, porterhouse and top sirloin. There’s also lamb, veal chops, filet mignon, seafood, pasta and chicken. Evening entertainment in the lounge Wednesday to Saturday. $$$
MICKEY MANTLE’S STEAK HOUSE
7 Mickey Mantle Drive
tel 405 272 0777
METRO WINE BAR & BISTRO
Winner of Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence, Metro serves American and French bistro food, including excellent prime filet, rib eye and salads. Roasted garlic fries are an appetizer specialty and the wine cellar is extensive. Local artists have created a colorful lobby display of wine art labels. $$
METRO WINE BAR & BISTRO
6418 N. Western
tel 405 840 9463
SOLEIL THE RESTA URANT
Inside the historic Colcord Hotel, Soleil brings an innovative menu and French ambience to Oklahoma City, with fresh seafood, the popular Oyster Bar and eclectic continental entrees. There’s also an excellent selection of French wines and Champagne. The same owners run the trendy XO Lounge located on the hotel’s lower level.$$
SOLEIL THE RESTA URANT
15 N. Robinson Ave.
tel 405 601 3800
INFO TO GO
Will Rogers World Airport (OKC) is located 10 miles from downtown Oklahoma City, about 15 to 20 minutes driving time. Transportation options include taxi ($20), public van ($17) or Metro Transit city bus ($1.25, limited service). Amtrak also services the city with its daily “Heartland Flyer” train, which runs between Oklahoma City and Fort Worth, stopping at the historic Santa Fe Station in Bricktown. Metro Transit operates the popular “Oklahoma Spirit,” a rubber-tire trolley (25 cents a ride, multi-day passes available) that runs along several routes through downtown and to major city attractions.
At Home with Roy Williams
President & CEO, Greater Oklahoma City Chamber
Global Traveler: Do you see continued growth in new business development downtown and in the suburbs during the next few years?
Roy Williams: Yes, including, but not limited to, hotels, restaurants, retail, offices and the service sectors. Growth will also continue in the suburbs. The presence of oil and gas companies headquartered here has helped the economy, but we have seen the value of goods and services in all of our economic sectors increase, as well as positive job growth in every one. We now are enjoying a very balanced economy, including the bioscience cluster, the aviation and aerospace cluster, and the leisure and hospitality cluster.
GT: What are some of the corporate success stories in the city? Is the Oklahoma Health Center on target for its expansion plans?
RW: Cytovance, a contract enzyme and protein manufacturer, and Sandridge, a $3.5-billion IPO, debuted on Wall Street in November 2007, and several more local IPOs are slated very soon. Dell now has more than 2,000 employees here and is growing daily. The entire health center complex is undergoing a massive resurgence, including a $100-million addition to the Dean Mc- Gee Eye Institute that is under construction. The $120-million Cancer Research Center will break ground this year, the $60- to $80-million Diabetes Research Center will begin construction this year and numerous other projects amounting to about $500 million are on the planning board.
GT: What are some of the new residential and commercial developments that are planned for downtown in the coming year or two?
RW: Maywood Village, a complex of residential townhouses, is under construction and expanding. Another new project of townhouses, but at lower entry costs, is being constructed across from Maywood. The Hill condominiums are now coming out of the ground, and new retail is going into The Centennial on the [Bricktown] canal. A new hotel is under construction in Bricktown and a new retail facility on the canal will break ground this year. In addition, a study is underway to assess and plan for either a new convention center, or an expansion of the existing Cox Center. The city will make that decision sometime this year.
GT: How did the 1995 Murrah Federal Building bombing affect the downtown community?
RW: The bombing brought retail and service business downtown to a halt. Many buildings had to be demolished due to structural damage and others had to be relocated. Yet there was an immediate pulling together since practically everyone was touched, either directly or indirectly, by the bombing. People’s lives were forever changed in that moment and they will never forget it. Locals frequent the site and comfort others on a regular basis. But it has created a sense of hope, not despair.
Most visitors head straight for Bricktown (tel 405 236 8666, http://www.bricktownokc.org), the late-18th/early-19th century downtown district where former red brick warehouses, iron foundries and railroad storehouses have been converted into attractive restaurants, shops, hotels and offices. Stroll along the canal and take in the sights of this day and evening entertainment district.
The 20,000-seat Ford Center (100 W. Reno Ave., tel 405 602 8700, http://www.okfordcenter.com) hosts concerts and sporting events, and may one day be home to an NBA team. The National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum (1700 N.E. 63rd St., tel 405 478 2250, http://www.nationalcowboymuseum.org) presents many exhibits relating to the American cowboy and Native Americans, from fine art to pop culture, artifacts, historic firearms, photographs and films. Another museum worth visiting is the Oklahoma City Museum of Art (415 Couch Drive, tel 405 236 3100, http://www.okcmoa.com) with its collection of European and American art, including the world’s largest collection of Chihuly glass pieces, beginning with the 55-foot glass tower in the museum atrium. The Noble Theater, within the museum, shows independent and classic films from the United States and abroad.
There are plenty of other museums in town, dedicated to diverse subjects. Check out the 45th Infantry Division Museum (http://www.45thdivisionmuseum.com), the Oklahoma Museum of Telephone History (tel 405 236 6153), the World of Wings Pigeon Museum (http://www.pigeoncenter.org) and the Oklahoma Railway Museum (http://www.oklahomarailwaymuseum.org).
If museum visits leave you yearning for action, head to the Rocktown Gym climbing center (200 S.E. 4th St., tel 405 319 1400, http://www.rocktowngym.com), where more than a dozen climbing routes are built inside and outside old grain silos as high as 90 feet. Showers, lockers, and climbing classes are also available.
In addition to the popular Bricktown district, make sure you visit Stockyards City (http://.stockyardscity.com), a National Register Historic District with live cattle auctions on Monday and Tuesday mornings and great western shops. The Paseo Artists District (http://www.thepaseo.com) features dozens of art galleries, studios and dining venues.
Regardless of your schedule, it’s imperative to visit Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum (620 N. Harvey Ave., tel 405 235 3313, http://www.oklahomacitynationalmemorial.org) at the site of the 1995 bombing. The outdoor Symbolic Memorial, open 365 days a year, 24 hours a day is a quiet place to reflect among 168 empty chairs symbolizing the 168 lost lives. There’s also a Survivor Wall and Tree. The 30,000-square-foot museum offers a self-guided tour chronicling the events of April 19, 1995.
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For the next several weeks, we are compiling the thoughts and experiences of our staff, writers and readers about the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. As a travel publication, we’ve all been affected during these difficult times, as have many of our clients, friends, partners and more.