During the long, rancorous debate in the early 2000s over building a downtown arena, a project that supporters promised would attract thousands of out-of-town visitors each year, some Tulsans scoffed at the idea of our city ever becoming a tourist destination.
“We don’t have the Gulf Coast,” they said, mockingly. “We don’t have the Rocky Mountains.” Spending millions to build a concert venue wouldn’t suddenly make Tulsa a vacation spot.
They were right, of course. But you don’t have to be Russell Westbrook to play basketball. And you don’t have to be Disney World to attract tourists.
When the naysayers belittled Tulsa as a place to visit, they were really belittling Tulsa as a place to live. We had a chronic shortage of self-confidence, and we couldn’t expect out-of-town visitors to be impressed by Tulsa if we didn’t seem impressed by it ourselves.
Since then, the BOK Center opened in 2008 and has been repeatedly recognized as one of the premier venues of its size in the country. Downtown embarked on more than a decade of steady revitalization. And Gathering Place gave Tulsa one of the largest and most innovative public parks in the United States.
A lot has changed since the arena debates. But the biggest change has been Tulsa’s attitude.
When the George Kaiser Family Foundation announced in 2018 that it would pay people $10,000 to spend a year in Tulsa, I braced myself for the self-deprecating jokes.
“We’re so lame, we have to bribe people to come here.”
But nobody laughed at the idea. More than 100 people accepted GKFF’s offer. And the only wisecrack I’ve heard flipped the punchline around: “People ought to pay us for the privilege of coming here.”
And when the Route 66 Commission started working in 2016 to promote Tulsa’s stretch of Route 66 as a tourist destination, nobody scoffed. People wondered why the city hadn’t been doing this for years already.
Tulsa no longer asks itself why tourists would want to come here. We’re asking, why wouldn’t they?