Florida man's 'ride to nowhere' in Oklahoma City changes hands
Just weeks after the 20th anniversary celebrations for the Bricktown Canal, ownership of its water taxis has passed to Chad Huntington, the longtime manager of the excursion cruises.
The purchase closed Wednesday and marks the end of an era in which the founder, Bob Bekoff, invested his time, passions and money into not just creating an entertaining ride for visitors but also investing in business start-ups along the canal.
Discussions were long underway when Bekoff died in October at age 75. In addition to taking a chance on starting up a water taxi operation on a new canal that literally went nowhere, Bekoff invested in a gift shop, a marketplace and outdoor bar and music venue — all while maintaining his residence in Plantation, Flaorida.
In his final years, Bekoff sold off most of his operations in the country, but never gave up his interest in Oklahoma City.
Bekoff’s wife, Dotty, and son Norm, who co-founded the Bricktown Water Taxis, kept Huntington in charge of the water taxis before the sale was completed.
“Bob loved doing business in Oklahoma City and dealing with the kind and wonderful people there,” Dotty said. “It was one of the reasons when he sold the Fort Lauderdale operation he still kept OKC.”
The mere existence of the water taxis, not to mention their ongoing success, was not something anticipated by city leaders when they prepared to open the canal in 1999. Yet 20 years later, the water taxis have carried more than 2 million people with counts topping 100,000 annually regardless of weather and other challenges.
Bekoff, a Massachusetts native, retired at age 48 after selling his forklift business. He initially traveled the world pursuing his passion of big game fishing. He settled down in Florida and started water taxi operations in Fort Lauderdale. He then expanded operations in New York.
He had just set up a website for his company when he was contacted by Oklahoma City’s MAPS office and invited to respond to a request for proposals to lease or sell boats for the canal and act as interim operator.
Bekoff countered with a deal that surprised City Hall; he offered to buy six water taxis similar to those used on the San Antonio Riverwalk and operate the excursions with a performance-based contract that provided for a split of any profits.
Then-Assistant City Manager Jim Couch said at the time the city was unsure the rides would be much of a success. Chelino’s was the only restaurant open on the waterway, and a large part of the south canal was surrounded by nothing but dirt.
A voyage on the water taxis was jokingly referred to by many, including Bekoff, as a “ride to nowhere.”
On July 2, 1999, people lined up for hours to get a chance to experience that ride to nowhere. Ridership remained high throughout the year. The operation remained profitable as restaurants, housing, hotels and entertainment venues popped up along the water over the next two decades.
Part of the magic early on was the narrative given by the water taxi captains, a mix of history, humor and information about development in Bricktown and the story of MAPS.
“Bob’s other business in Fort Lauderdale was a lot more transit oriented,” Huntington said. “It was truly a ferry service. This was a little bit different in that we had an environment and service that is more conducive to a tour.”
Huntington, who was executive director of Automobile Alley in 1999, was one of the boat captains that opening day and continued to work for Bekoff part time until he was hired as operator to succeed Norm Bekoff, who had overseen the successful launch.
“We always from the beginning wanted to tell the story of MAPS and Oklahoma City’s resurgence,” Huntington said. “We needed to tell people why the canal was there and explain what was popping up around the city. We needed to explain it was strategic and planned as part of an effort to make Oklahoma City a more appealing place.”
Bekoff and Huntington weren’t content in just telling that story and providing a great tour. The pair collaborated on several ventures aimed at adding to the excitement.
Some ideas, like a farmers’ market, didn’t get past planning. Bekoff, however, teamed with Huntington in opening a gift shop focused on selling Oklahoma-based items and a marketplace next door, both in the Miller-Jackson Building.
Bekoff also teamed up with his son, Norm, to open a “dockside bar” and music venue on the canal level of what is now the Jim Brewer building. The bar has changed owners and names, but the concept remains popular with visitors.
“He had a lot of optimism,” Huntington said. “He liked the idea of himself as a serial entrepreneur. He was always open to trying new things. Sometimes they worked, sometimes they didn’t. But he always believed in them.”
Huntington said the timing of the sale just weeks after the 20th anniversary is “interesting” and “sort of appropriate,” but not planned.
Changes, he said, will occur as they have all along — when needed.
“We have made several changes over the past year related to technology, ticketing and improving customer service,” Huntington said. “We want to continue to adapt, to serve today’s consumers and not just be content with what we did 20 years ago. Tastes change, technology changes, and we embrace that. But the establishing precepts that Bob and Norm brought in 1999 are foundational and won’t be changing.”