OKANA resort to continue city and tribe partnership along the Oklahoma River
Oklahoma City, already partnered with the Chickasaw Nation in finishing and opening the First Americans Museum, is also tying in upcoming improvements to the Oklahoma River with the upcoming $300 million OKANA development.
The Chickasaw Nation is set to start construction next year on the resort, which will include an 11-story hotel, conference center, water park, outdoor recreational lagoon, entertainment center, dining and retail.
The tribe has increasingly partnered with the city over the past 20 years on civic causes with contributions including the Chickasaw sculpture plaza along the Bricktown Canal and investments including the Remington Park racetrack and casino, Exhibit C in Bricktown and planned branches of Chickasaw Bank in northwest and downtown Oklahoma City.
The Chickasaws also bought and redeveloped the closed Sportman’s Country Club in northwest Oklahoma City into a community and senior center. The tribe also supports the Oklahoma City Dodgers with a naming rights agreement for the Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark.
The partnership goes even further with the First Americans Museum and OKANA resort, which started when state legislators in 2015 sought to abandon the museum that they had first agreed in the late 1990s to build and operate.
Mayor David Holt was serving his final term in the Oklahoma State Senate as then-Mayor Mick Cornett was confronted with how to solve the years-long standstill with how to pay for the completion and opening of the museum.
“The state had made an offer without negotiation to the city; ‘We’re going to contribute some to the finishing cost of this building and the city will have to take it on.’ The city didn’t feel like this deal worked for them,” Holt said. “But then the Chickasaws got involved. This is not their historic territory but they kind of adopted us and we’re grateful. They came forward to make this work.”
The deal required the city to provide the tribe with the 140 acres surrounding the museum and in turn the Chickasaws agreed to complete construction and cover operating deficits of up to $2 million a year for the first seven years after the museum opens.
Now the city and tribe are working together again to create a $300 million resort on the land surrounding the museum.
The OKANA development far outpaces visions for the riverfront that led to the original MAPS conversion of the onetime drainage channel and eyesore into a recreational showcase that is home to the Boathouse District and the Wheeler neighborhood, and with connections to the Interstate 40 and Meridian hotel corridor and Stockyards City.
Almost 30 years have passed since voters agreed to fund the creation of dams and trails along a 7-mile stretch of what was then known as the North Canadian River. That investment was followed by a mix of private and public funding for a series of boathouses, the recreational RiverSport park and whitewater rapids.
MAPS 4 continues the investment along the river and will include a pedestrian bridge that will connect the resort with land along the north shore of the river, stretching from Interstate 35 to Eastern Avenue that is also controlled by the Chickasaw Nation.
That bridge will link to a trail system that currently ends at the Boathouse District and with an extension will in turn begin to eliminate a gap between south Oklahoma City, the museum, the south shore, and Boathouse Row, the north shore, Bricktown and north Oklahoma City. The trail extension will be funded through MAPS 4 and prior bond issues, both approved by voters.
MAPS 4 also includes funding for beautification projects tentatively set to include the I-35 river bridge and Reno Avenue between Bricktown and the future OKANA development — a corridor that is now lined with unsightly scrapyards.
The Central Oklahoma Transportation Authority, meanwhile, is set to add a ferry landing by OKANA and the First Americans Museum. The landing, funded through a $4 million Federal Transportation Administration grant, will double as a viewing stand for the U.S. Rowing National High Performance Center’s 2,000-meter course.
Financing for OKANA includes a $128 million, 25-year tax increment financing district based on growth of revenues from the development that was previously approved by the Oklahoma City Council.
“We did it somewhat sight unseen, which is kind of unusual,” Holt said. “But in this case, again, their track record was so great, we knew this would be good. Finally getting to see what they’ve got planned is an exciting moment.
“Just as expected, the Chickasaw Nation does have great plans for this site. And this will help us realize the full potential of the museum and this location.”
Yet another MAPS 4 project will improve the view east of the museum and resort.
“Right now, the end of the river is at Eastern,” Holt said. “And when you look out to the east, over the bridge, you see what the river used to look like — a ditch. MAPS 4 includes a dam. It will be a low-level dam and it won’t be navigable with locks like the rest of the river. But it will be more appealing visually.”