From Dirt to Water
Oklahoma City, like most growing metro areas, is a patchwork. One minute you might feel like you’re in the middle of New York’s Financial District, another you wonder if your GPS has led you astray. And that’s just the streets. What about the places those streets take you? The Civic Center, Chesapeake Energy Arena, the Bricktown Ballpark. MAPS played a role in all of them. But none of them host Olympic athletes every day. That’s down by the Oklahoma River, which has meshed top notch facilities with areas to introduce those to kayaking, rowing, or paddleboarding. KOSU Radio presents Starting the Current…
But at first, there was no river anyone wanted to go to. That was the problem in front of some of the brightest in Oklahoma City. The three advocates first came together in the 90s – Pat Downes, Mike Knopp, and Mayor Ron Norick. Some would say the best of the best, but they had to turn dirt into water. They knew what they wanted.
“But there were others in the community that frankly laughed when you would talk about let’s do something about the river. Because it seemed like such a preposterous idea from where it was to that kind of, at that point, unimaginable for some people.”
Pat Downes with the Oklahoma City Riverfront Authority. There was a time when the Oklahoma River was thriving. A zoo, arcade, and parks brought a carnival like atmosphere to the banks of what was then the North Canadian, but that was back when the Model T was the car of choice. Soon the water was spilling out over the river and flooding parts of the city, so the Army Corps of Engineers tamed it.
“So what you ended up with was a waterway that was completely flood resistant but was arguably America’s ugliest river. So we had really traded the blight of flooding for the equally problematic blight of an area that was very undesirable.”
String of Pearls was one of the more ambitious plans to make the river a river again. It first was proposed in 1980, but never got enough traction to become reality. Few saw the potential of the river, and few wanted to invest in it. However, Mayor Norick was one of the few.
“That really kinda started it. And not too long after that, is when the Boathouse Foundation was created. And I think that’s really what kicked off that whole development area.”
Mayor Norick had started that downstream current, and Pat Downes wanted to join in. He knew you couldn’t have blue without some green.
“It’s relatively easy to do things when you have money with which to do them. The real challenge is taking an idea or a vision, particularly one that might be dismissed easily out of hand as too expensive or too ambitious or too bold…”
Mayor Ron Norick is the kind of guy that wins you over by walking into the room. He would go anywhere, and everywhere. Dominoes game? How about bingo? If they were voters, let him make his pitch…
“And what we’re doing here is something for your kids and grandkids. And that would get them. Because I’d have people say well I don’t go downtown, it’s not safe, I wouldn’t go down, there’s nothing to do, and on and on,” said Norick.
“I said, ‘That’s fine, you may not go downtown, but maybe your kids would like to go downtown someday, maybe your grandkids. Maybe they’d like to work here, have a place to get employment rather than go to Dallas or Kansas City or anywhere else.’”
The biggest hurdle had always been the ballot box thought. The first MAPS had nine projects, from a library to the ballpark to the river. A lot of different interests, and Mayor Norick said the city’s law department first wanted votes on each one…
“And I said it won’t pass. If you do that, it’s not going to work, because people are going to pick and choose, we had done some initial polling, and there was only two projects that even came close to 50 percent people liked and that was the river and the library.”
“So I basically said we’ve got to figure out a way that we can do this in one ballot, and finally the legal department figured [it] out. It’s going to be an up or down, it’s going to be an up or down vote, one little box. Either you like it or you don’t like it.”
Getting that up vote was a task that required as much help as was out there. Ray Ackerman took up the cause. As head of an advertising agency in Oklahoma City, he knew how to win people over. And the river had always been part of his life, to the point where he’s now known as Old Man River…
“We almost immediately started seeing progress. The baseball park was the first thing that came out of the ground, and then one by one they kept coming. And finally the river, which was most controversial. The river and the canal, very prominent people in this town were opposed.”
Still, getting MAPS passed is one thing. Actually convincing people to use the river is another. No matter who I talked to, it all came back to one guy. Just listen to Oklahoman reporter Steve Lackmeyer…
But it wasn’t until ground was broken for one of the dams, and a guy by the name of Mike Knopp came out with some fellow rowing enthusiasts. Now normally the river bed would be dry, but during this groundbreaking, there was just enough water from some recent rains that you could put a canoe in there, you could put a boat and actually do something with it.”
Said Lackmeyer, “But it was almost laughable to watch them rowing in this very dirty waterway, waterway that you were used to seeing weeds, old TVs, junk…”
Rowing started as an activity for Knopp, who paid the bills as a lawyer for the FAA. To really get the sport going, he quit that comfortable paycheck to literally jump in. That boat ride started to turn the city’s eyes towards the dirty ditch that was the North Canadian River…
“Well I remember some surprised looks of the people on the bank. I also remember really the cheers of the folks seeing that happen.”
Lackmeyer was there.
“And as you watched them, and you looked toward the skyline, this was off of Eastern Avenue, where the Native American Cultural Center is being built, and you began to realize, well maybe something can be done.”
Now, as Oklahoma City University’s head rowing coach, on top of Executive Director of the Oklahoma City Boathouse Foundation, Knopp is Oklahoma River. He’s gone from dreaming for water to dreaming about the next boathouse. The first came when Chesapeake CEO Aubrey McClendon pledged his support, turning underwhelming blueprints into the showcase Chesapeake Boathouse, with a sweeping design…
“I think January 17th, 2006 to be exact, which is the day we opened the Chesapeake Boathouse, was one of those moments.”
That boathouse started the current. Devon was next to build, and SandRidge, OU, and OCU all have plans to build their own facilities. All of this sounds nice and all, but buildings need tenants. Who better than USA Canoe Kayak?
“They get the no excuse assurance that if they have the desire to work hard, if they have the belief that they can be the next great champion, then we’ve got everything else here that you need to do that. We’ve got the best gear, we’ve got the best coaches, we’ve got the best facilities and we’ve got a community who will support you.”
Joe Jacobi, head of the program, moved it here just a couple months ago. That, despite what he saw when Oklahoma City first held the US Olympic Trials back in 2008…
“It was the Chesapeake Boathouse and a lot of temporary structures like platforms and tents and a lot of rented gear along the side of the river to host this Olympic trials.”
Now, he’s saying things like this…
“This looks like the future of kayaking. I say it’s the Jetsons go kayaking.”
You really do feel like you’re in some utopia. The buildings wouldn’t be out of place on a space colony. Add the Chesapeake Finish Line Tower and the Devon Boathouse to the Chesapeake Boathouse. All three fit seamlessly with each other, futuristic with easy curves. It makes for a striking appearance seen so close to a river. But it works.
That was back in 2009, and it means another 60 million dollars for the river. Already, the investment, as part of MAPS, has brought more development and more hotel rooms. When this next phase of MAPS is complete, the Oklahoma River will become one of the few in the world that can host night racing thanks to new lights, and will also get a whitewater course, a better timing system, and more seating.
About a month ago, Traylor Rains watched the Olympic Trials on a grassy hillside in the shadow of the Chesapeake Finishline Tower. Rains didn’t grow up in Oklahoma, so the thought of a river in Oklahoma City came across as an oxymoron….
“To me, it’s put us on the map and when I have friends that come and visit, they’ll say things like “Oh this is nice for Oklahoma”. The things is it’s nice period. Not just for the state of Oklahoma and it’s great we’re looked at nationally now for different things and we can have this and bring the tourism and bring things like this here, I love it.”
The river has become both a world-class training facility and just a place to learn how to kayak, or get up on a paddleboard.
“So we’ve gone from, in just a few short years, from mowing to rowing, and that’s a cool thing.”