Nov 1, 2011

Just Add Water: How One U.S. City Transformed a Drainage Ditch into a World Class Paddling Venue

Trivia question: Where will the International Canoe Federation hold the 2014 Canoe Marathon World Championships? Hint. It’s already home to the finest rowing facility in the United States and possibly the world.

If you guessed Oklahoma City’s Boathouse District you are right, and probably a serious rower or paddler. Once synonymous with the Dust Bowl, this city of half a million residents partnered with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the early 2000s to invest $54 million, reclaiming a seven-mile stretch of what was then euphemistically called the New Canadian River. When the project was finished in 2004, the weed choked ditch had been transformed into the Oklahoma River that is home to a training center for rowers and paddlers that is the envy of the world. Two nearby universities have committed to locating their rowing teams downtown and the city is preparing to move forward with plans for a $30 million whitewater park. The district has already been designated as a U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Site for rowing and canoe/kayak teams.

City boosters say the Oklahoma River project traces back to the early 1990s when the city lost out to Indianapolis in a competition to lure a $600 million United Airlines maintenance hub. When the mayor pressed the airline’s executives on why they had passed over Oklahoma City, they reluctantly replied that no one wanted to live in the town. Indianapolis, by contrast, had created excitement with an ambitious redevelopment plan revolving around the White River State Park.

It was a devastating blow to Oklahoma City’s civic bride, but the city’s leaders recovered and pledged to pursue a new economic development strategy, said Pat Downes, director of development for the Oklahoma City Riverfront Redevelopment Authority.

“From that point forward, they said we are going to stop attempting to bribe large manufacturers to come to town. Instead, we will create a great quality of life and make them want to come here.”

In 1993, voters approved a one cent sales tax to finance a series of capital improvement projects aimed at enhancing the city’s sports, recreation, entertainment, cultural and convention facilities. The centerpiece of the $350 million plan was the Oklahoma River project. The city partnered with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to invest $54 million developing a recreation destination along a seven-mile stretch of the North Canadian River. Trails were built on both sides of the new river for walking, bicycling, skateboarding and areas were set aside for close-to-home fishing. The Oklahoma City Boathouse Foundation was created to find corporate and other sponsors needed to raise money to build and operate boathouses and sponsor events in the Boathouse District.

The investment paid its first big dividend in 2004 when Dell Computer announced it would build a 500-employee call center on a 62-acre site at the entry way to the river district. With the help of tax incentives and job training grants totaling $10 million, Dell has gone on to expand its riverfront campus, which now houses more than 1,000 employees. The project has had an economic impact of $630 million in the region, according to the city.

“Dell’s new facility development executives told us point blank that the deciding factor was our vision of the Riverfront project,” said Downes.

Today, Downes hosts delegations from cities across the country that want to know how to leverage their rivers and outdoor recreation to enhance economic development. City boosters expect the riverfront could spur more than $1 billion in construction projects over the next decade.

“In 10 years it’s gone from a ditch to an Olympic training venue,” said Michael Knopp, executive director of the Oklahoma City Boathouse Foundation. “Now there is a second sales tax initiative in play to provide another $60 million in public funding to further enhance the river to offer night racing and $30 million for a whitewater course.”

In transforming a drainage ditch into a river, Oklahoma City transformed its economy, said Downes. It’s a trend he sees happening across the United States as cities reclaim blighted, flood-prone riverfront properties long since abandoned by manufacturers.

“If you want to see the power of that transformation, consider that the marketing arm of city, the Oklahoma City Convention & Visitors Bureau, has chosen to incorporate the riverfront and outdoor recreation in the form of rowers into its logo. That image goes on every brochure the city sends out.”