Nearly doubling in size since the beginning of the century, Bixby has become Tulsa’s fastest-growing suburb and seems as likely a place as any to find the metropolitan area’s 1 millionth person.
Despite its rapid growth, Bixby has managed to maintain its appeal as anything but big — one of the reasons people move there and why others stay.
“As much as we’ve grown, we still somehow managed to retain a little of that small-town charm,” said Jay Bittle, a longtime Bixby resident and the athletic director at Bixby High School. “I think that’s what brings people to the community. We’re far enough outside of Tulsa, we can kind of exist on our own.”
The commercial development on Memorial Drive between 101st and 110th streets has the feel of a city with many restaurants, a Walmart and a Costco. Farther south, beyond the Arkansas River bridge, the vibe begins to change.
Downtown offers local favorites like Scott’s Hamburgers and the Stepping Stone Café, and the Lazy Fisherman near 171st is the spot for fried catfish. There’s Doc’s Country Mart and a popular farmers market.
Farming remains important in Bixby. A lot of sod is grown here.
“You don’t have to go very far to get into the country,” said 70-year-old Jack Foreman, who has lived in Bixby for 45 years.
In the next few months, downtown Bixby will get a facelift that includes improved streets, sidewalks, curbs and added greenery.
“What it’s intended to do is bring back that local community where people will come down and park, spend some time at a restaurant, go down to the park and do other things right near downtown instead of going across the bridge and getting into Memorial traffic and all that type of stuff,” said Rob Miller, superintendent of Bixby Public Schools.
There is an evolving dynamic in Bixby: the older generation who has raised kids there and might now have grandkids and younger families who are moving in for the schools.
Jessica Jernegan is part of the latter. The fifth-grade teacher began her career a decade ago at Bixby North Intermediate, and she also is president of the local teachers union.
“My heart has been here since I started, and that feeling has only grown over the 10 years I’ve spent teaching here,” Jernegan said. “I just can’t see myself anywhere else.”
Luther Metcalf — who Bittle calls Mr. Bixby — came in 1930 and never left. He built more houses in Bixby than he could count, and he’s also had a hand in many other structures around town.
Every other Friday morning, Metcalf can be found at Daylight Donuts, where he and his band play country and gospel songs with guitars and fiddles.
“We have a lot of fun,” Metcalf said. “We just like to do it. We like playing music.”
Small-town charm is nice, but Bixby is growing quickly and city officials are trying to accommodate that growth.
The population in the south Tulsa County city increased by 1,113 from July 2016 to July 2017, bringing its total number of residents to 26,724, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau estimates. That pace made Bixby the fastest-growing city in the region and second-fastest overall in the state over that one-year time frame.
Accordingly, the schools are growing.
Since the passage of the 2016 bond issue, the district has completed construction of a new intermediate school at the northeast campus (76,000 square feet), along with an additional classroom building at the Ninth Grade Center, totaling another 42,000 square feet. Current construction projects will also add approximately 40 middle-school classrooms (set to open in August), and a new West Elementary/Intermediate Campus at 151st Street and Harvard Avenue is scheduled to open August 2020. The next focus will be high school upgrades, possibly including a new classroom building.
Miller, 57, is no stranger to local communities, having grown up in Sand Springs and spending two decades as a teacher and administrator in Jenks. Last year, he started his job in Bixby, where his daughter Brittany and her husband, Brett, are raising their son, Brooks. Miller looks forward to seeing his grandson come through Bixby schools.
“Bixby is really where I’d like to finish my career,” Miller said. “It’s a progressive, fast-growing district that has a tremendous foundation and lots of room for some incredible things, some amazing things.”
According to a 2018-19 report from the Oklahoma Secondary Schools Activities Association, Bixby High School’s average daily membership is 1,739.08, ranking 19th in the state and just a few students ahead of Sand Springs. That’s big but not too big.
“(Bixby schools) has all the amenities that a much larger school has, but it’s small enough that your kids aren’t getting lost in the shuffle,” said Krystal Crockett, president and CEO of the Bixby Metro Chamber of Commerce. “And that really goes around the whole city, that people aren’t really getting lost in the shuffle because we’re still small.”
Many residents think Bixby needs another bridge across the Arkansas River, not only for convenience but also for safety. It’s been a sometimes-controversial subject over the years with some opposed to the idea.
“I will say it is absolutely on the horizon, but here’s the thing about a horizon — it will always look like it’s right next to you, but you don’t really know how far away you are from it,” Crockett said.
An additional bridge will likely help accelerate Bixby’s growth, but the town that began in the early 1990s with 300 people and was named after founding father Tams Bixby will likely retain its roots.
“Our community leaders have had the vision that they didn’t want to grow too fast, and they still want to retain some of that charm,” Bittle said. “We still have parades that go downtown, the homecoming parades, the Christmas parades. I think people enjoy that we can still do those things. We haven’t gotten too big to not do those things.”