Looming over the Oklahoma River, the Devon Boathouse is a shining glass-and-steel structure designed to resemble a boat on the water.
Built in 2010, the state-of-the art training facility for rowing, kayaking and canoeing is intended to be one of at least four, and possibly five, boathouses with a finish-line tower that will make up an architectural sculpture intended to look like racing boats lining up on the start line.
It's unlike any other rowing venue in the United States. The designers behind the project are trying to make Oklahoma City one of the centers of aquatic sport in the United States.
Two of the boathouses and the Chesapeake Finish Line Tower have been built, and the project is expected to continue through 2015.
This week, it is the site of the 2011 USRowing Masters National Championships.
“It's great,” said 34-year-old Roger Schiller of Austin Rowing Club in Austin, Texas. “It's the first time I've been here. It's nice, really first class. I've never seen anything like it.”
Schiller came with a large contingent from his club to row in several of the 58 events Austin is entered in.
“There are only a few places in the country that have kind of a regatta in box concept down, like Sacramento and Oak Ridge, and this is one of them too,” he said.
Who would have thought of developing a major rowing center in the oil, natural gas and livestock city of Oklahoma City?
Mike Knopp, for one.
Knopp, an attorney who grew up in Minnesota, lived in Maryland in high school watching Naval Academy crews, and then rowed in a club program at Oklahoma State University. He later started the first rowing program at Oklahoma City University and saw a chance to introduce rowing to the city using municipal and corporate funding.
“This was the time of (MAPS), a sales tax driven, quality of life improvement initiative that was one of the largest in the country, and it was all about making Oklahoma City a place where people would want to live.”
After putting together a development initiative group, Knopp, now the Executive Director of the Oklahoma City Boathouse Foundation, convinced the city that what was at the time a dry flood ditch could be dammed and developed into a rowing center.
As the grass roots efforts grew, it drew the interest of the Chesapeake Energy Corporation, which became a major supporter. The architectural firm Rand, Elliot, Elliot and Associates was asked to come up with a design for the project and the first building, the Chesapeake Boathouse, was built.
“As a rower, it was easy to dream about the opportunity because you saw this totally straight section that had riffraff along the side and no water. But you could see it was 2,000 meters long and downtown, and if it only had water, it could be developed. And that's where I started to sell the idea of a boathouse,” Knopp said.
“That was challenging to understand for some people. How could you put a boathouse on what had been a ditch for so long? Fortunately we had some great visionaries in town including Aubrey McClendon of Chesapeake Energy, (advertising executive) Ray Ackerman, our mayor at the time, and others who knew that making bold moves that are unexpected could make a big impact.”
Now called the Boathouse District, the rowing venue is a major attraction to the city. It has held national and international rowing and kayaking events and introduced night racing. In 2014, it is scheduled to be the site of the Canoe Marathon World Championships.