Oklahoma tourism agency ponders building new headquarters after years of budget cuts
Despite years of successive budget cuts and state park closures, the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department is considering building a new headquarters overlooking downtown Oklahoma City.
Construction would be funded by $9 million in bonds that were approved by the Oklahoma Legislature back in 2007.
Conceptual designs for the project show a new two- to three-story building attached to the Oklahoma Department of Commerce's headquarters at 900 N Stiles, south of the state Capitol complex.
The tourism department was forced to move into the Commerce Department building from downtown Oklahoma City's First National Building in August 2015 with only a few days notice.
The two agencies have been sharing the Commerce Department's more than 100-year old converted church building for the past two years, said Leslie Blair, tourism spokeswoman.
Tourism also has had to rent additional office and warehouse space for staff that it couldn't squeeze into the Commerce building, Blair said.
"The long-term options for both agencies to stay in this configuration are unproductive," she said.
The tourism department is paying the Oklahoma City architectural and engineering firm FSB $24,883 to help create a conceptual design and to determine the space and layout needed for a new building.
FSB presented preliminary designs for the new headquarters to the Capitol-Medical Center Improvement and Zoning Commission in February.
Dan Ross, chairman of the zoning board, said the presentation was only for informational purposes and no action was taken at the meeting.
"It was just a presentation to say 'this is potentially what we are going to build,'" Ross said. " ... it looked like a nice new building."
Also in February, the tourism department approached the Oklahoma Capitol Improvement Authority about the possibility of leasing part of the new building for "private use," records show.
"They are entertaining a few different ideas for use of the rooftop that has a beautiful view of the skyline," according to minutes from the meeting.
There's no timetable for construction to move forward on the project, and constructing a new building is just one option the agency is considering, Blair said.
"Since the time frame for any construction of a sizable building is in years, it is only prudent to be planning for future needs," Blair said.
The tourism department has shed several state park sites over the past few years because of deep cuts to state funding. The largest round of closures came in 2011, when the agency transferred control of seven state parks to local communities and Indian tribes.
The Tourism and Recreation Department has had its state funding cut by about 40 percent since 2009.
In 2016, the agency turned control of two additional parks, Dripping Springs and Okmulgee State Park, over to the city of Okmulgee in a further bid to save money.
Faced with a hypothetical 14.5 percent state funding cut this past legislative session, the tourism department said in March that it could be forced to close up to 16 additional state parks, or about half of the properties under its control.
The agency ended up taking a more than 4 percent cut in appropriated funds for the fiscal year that began July 1.
Blair said any new state park closures are now off the table.
"Tourism will continue to have to make payments for office space — either in the form of rent, or a bond payment," she said.
Even after years of aggressive cuts to appropriated funds for many state agencies, several other large state government construction projects have continued to move forward, financed through bonds and other means.
The Oklahoma Wildlife Conservation Commission is in the process of building a new $15 million building at NE 18 and N Lincoln. The commission is a self-funded agency that receives no state appropriations and makes most of its revenue from hunting and fishing license fees. The new building is being financed out of the agency's own savings.
Ongoing renovations at the Oklahoma Capitol building are being funded through $245 million in bonds approved by the legislature.
A public-private partnership is behind renovations for a new headquarters for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. The Oklahoma Commissioners of the Land Office purchased an existing office building at 921 NE 23 for $3.5 million in 2015 and is leasing it to a private real estate developer. The developer is spending $20.4 million to renovate the property, a portion of which will then be subleased to the medical examiner's office.