Commercial development is seen as the next logical move for the Oklahoma River
Mike Knopp, director of the Oklahoma City Boathouse Foundation, is the first to admit that development along the Oklahoma River has not followed the traditional pattern of commercial development preceding large scale public recreational venues.
Thirteen years have passed since the opening of the first boathouse. In that time, the north shore has backed up to the skylines of Bricktown and downtown, expanding to include three boathouses, a finish-line tower, a White Water rapids, ropes course, bungee jumping, multi-story slides, bike tracks, rock climbing and more.
But the hotels that anchor the river a few miles west are not found along Boathouse Row. The only eatery is a grill at the White Water rapids. There are no other shops or off-season draws.
But it’s not due to lack of interest from visitors or commercial developers, Knopp says.
“When visitors come to town, a lot of the employers take them here to show off our city,” Knopp said. “And they ask, ‘This is such a cool place, but when you are going to have a place where they serve dinner? Where is a hotel where we can stay?’ I have to say, ‘I think it’s coming.’”
New master plan
The timing may come into better focus thanks to a new master plan that shows how to get development into the mix.
“We have taken an opposite approach and we’ve touted that a lot,” Knopp said. “Our first step in reinventing our river was getting people to go to the river. We needed people to energize it. Our intent, quite purposely, was activation — let’s make it a place, a destination for recreation.”
For the first time in the history of the river a master plan is complete, created pro bono by Wade Scaramucci and Alford Hall Monaghan Morris, and discussions are underway with potential developers.
“We always hoped and believed that what we have done would lead to commercial development,” Knopp said. “What it has led to so far is more than $100 million in world class facilities, the White Water center and all the attractions. And it’s led to development along other parts of the river like the Wheeler District.”
The commercial development is being discussed as the last MAPS 3 improvements, funded through the program’s surplus, are set to be completed in 2020. They include new zip lines that will travel the length of the Boathouse District’s north shore (the current zip lines cross the river) and a surfing pool.
Knopp believes the timing is right for commercial development and talks are underway with at least one commercial prospect.
“We have one very exciting project now that we’re working on that we think will be a game changer and a catalyst for future development,” Knopp said. “We are hoping it comes together in the near term.”
Both Scaramucci and Knopp say the district thrives spring through fall, but struggles during the colder off-season months. They believe commercial development can help overcome the seasonal ups and downs.
“We estimate about 400,000 visitors per year for all of our attractions and events,” Knopp said. “We continue to grow our events and we will have more next year. We did an economic study last year and they concluded the boathouse district has over a $23 million impact.”
Scaramucci, based in London but a native of Oklahoma City, remembers the days before MAPS when the river was an often-dry drainage channel. The original 1993 MAPS program, along with funding from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, paid for dams, trails and landscaping along the waterway between Eastern and Meridian avenues.
“We’re very interested in making the Boathouse District a place that has more to offer, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, all year,” Scaramucci said. “It gets quiet in the winter months because so much of it is outdoors. You have to build density into it.”
Scaramucci said the master plan also attempts to tie into the future American Indian Cultural Center being built on the south shore at Eastern Avenue while also allowing for the possibility of pedestrian bridges over the river and a channel that extends north from the shore by the Interstate 35 river bridge.
“Like any good master plan, it needs to have vision but be flexible to change at any given time,” Scaramucci said. “As this evolves over time, it will be tweaked. But the key is pedestrian connections and more active use.”
Knopp is excited by the suggested path of development shown in the master plan. An athletic village with shops that offer goods connected with sports along the river, along with restaurants and other draws, is designed so that it doesn’t overshadow the nationally acclaimed recreational venues master planned by architect Rand Elliott.
The plan suggests a nature park in the grove of large, old-growth trees located to the north of the White Water rapids. The plan also provides suggested sites for a hotel.
“We think there is absolutely an opportunity for a hotel with all the events we have,” Knopp said. “We know there are a lot of hotels in Bricktown. But we think we are a little different in that we have such a destination that having a hotel on the river makes sense. It would be nice if it were a special hotel that complements what we do and be a play and stay opportunity.”
Knopp believes with the addition of commercial development the Oklahoma River will become one of the city’s biggest draws.
“When you create a destination like what we have, and truly it is a differentiator for Oklahoma City, when people come in from the outside, they are stunned to see all this,” Knopp said. “They don’t expect to see white water rafting and these world class boathouses."