River Attraction: Oklahoma River is becoming a big draw for Oklahoma City

In just a few short years, a series of improvements along the Oklahoma River have transformed the one time flood control channel into one of Oklahoma City's top attractions.
by Steve Lackmeyer Modified: June 30, 2013 at 3:00 pm •  Published: June 30, 2013

Knopp believes that the white-water course, added to the Sky Trail, boating and other attractions along the river, will change visitors' expectations of 21st century amusement parks. The Charlotte white water center, without the benefit of the other amenities and attractions found at the Oklahoma River, draws 500,000 people a year.

“I don't think people know what's coming,” Knopp said. “It's so exciting. When you go into Charlotte, that place is so alive with activity, and it's all ages. When we opened the Bricktown Canal in the '90s, people couldn't wait for it to open. This will be like opening another canal, but it's with rushing water.”

The river inlet extension is one of several smaller improvements aimed to filling in the gaps between the various venues. With that one crossing, Downes notes, Bricktown and the river are connected.

“That extension connecting to the Land Run monument (along the canal north of I-40) and Bricktown is a very powerful thing,” Downes said. “Once opened, it's going to drive a great deal of interest by river patrons to Bricktown and interest by patrons in Bricktown to the river.”

The foundation, meanwhile, has added a transparent rock climbing wall inside the original Chesapeake Boathouse and created a parking bay where Knopp hopes food trucks will set up on busy days at the Skytrail.

The white water center, meanwhile, is ultimately set to include a gift shop, offices, meeting space and a restaurant.

In the meantime, the foundation has set up a large vending machine with a robotic arm that provides visitors with a range of hats, shirts, hygienic goods, snacks, drinks, meals and even fresh salads.

Just watching the large robotic arm in motion, Knopp jokes, is added entertainment for visitors.

The foundation also is gearing up to start up a short-distance shuttle that will connect visitors at the venues to water taxis along the Bricktown Canal. Those same visitors also will continue to have the option of enjoying a longer excursion on the Oklahoma River cruisers.

Knopp also is looking years ahead to when the American Indian Cultural Center and grandstands bookend the future south shore landing for the zip lines that will cross the river. One idea being contemplated is to establish a train ride that will go back and forth among the venues, and potentially even to a future parking area that could be built west of the Lincoln Boulevard bridge.

A tram along the river inlet and the Bricktown Canal also is a possibility.

Spectator sports

If Charlotte serves as a guide for what's ahead, the white-water venue also will draw those who will want to relax, listen to music and simply watch the adventures going on the rapids.

Those visitors also will get to watch Olympic class canoeing and kayaking.

Joe Jacobi, president of U.S.A. Canoe/Kayak, oversaw the association's move from Charlotte to the Oklahoma River in 2011, and has observed a quick turnaround for the organization's finances. Whereas before the organization was struggling to keep bills paid, its board is now budgeting how best to use its healthier bank balance to promote its athletes.

The organization also just hired a part-time coach to oversee high performance programs.

Unlike other Olympic training programs where athletes stay inside secured, fenced sports complexes, the future Olympians are on the river for everyone to watch.

Jacobi notes that school kids, some from economically distressed neighborhoods, are getting a shot at such dreams at an early age. And with the venues available to them on the Oklahoma River, Jacobi believes it's only a matter of time before an Oklahoma City youth wins a medal in canoeing and kayaking.

“It's an advantage,” Jacobi said. “It takes us a little time to get there because most of our kids are 12, 14 and 16 years old, but I think Oklahoma City will eventually account for one medal a year in Olympic racing.”

Changing vision

Knopp had a vision of a world-class boathouse district when he led a group of rowing enthusiasts on a demonstration of the river's potential at the groundbreaking for the Eastern Avenue dam a dozen years ago. Back then, the rowing was only possible because the river had filled up with water due to rainy weather the prior week.

Now, as the list of attractions keeps growing and the river itself is drawing rowers from across the country for various regattas, Knopp is reconsidering what is possible.

Had Knopp suggested just five years ago that the Oklahoma River could attract a Great Wolf Lodge, Downes would have responded “sure — in 30 years.”

The combined resorts and indoor water parks are tourist destinations for cities like Grapevine, Texas and Kansas City, Kan.

Now Downes admits such an addition is far more likely in the much nearer future.

“That would match very well the other attractions that are currently in place or projected to be built in the boathouse district,” Downes said. “As a result of the Oklahoma River project, we now have three riverfront hotels open and operating in the aero Meridian corridor, two more under construction and two more being designed and proposed. That's a pretty significant change from what the intersection of Meridian and the river looked like just five years ago.”

The success of hotel development along the western anchor to the river, however, hasn't changed Knopp's opinion that most such investment should remain in Bricktown — and not mixed into the boathouse district.

The master plan for the river drawn up just a few years ago is tantalizingly close to becoming a reality. But Knopp admits that the vision is constantly evolving.

Even branding for the boathouse district is under discussion. When the stretch around Regatta Park was only home to boathouses, the moniker of “Boathouse District” seemed appropriate to the foundation.

But with the success of the Riversports programs and the added attractions, Knopp acknowledges a tweaking to the area's identity might be next. For Knopp, the past decade has been one incredibly exciting voyage that has no end in sight. With the support of civic leaders, universities and leading employers, Knopp believes the river's attractions are key to making the city a healthier and more vibrant community.

“While it may have the feel the feel of an amusement park, it is based upon the idea of inspiring movement by making fitness and calorie burning activities fun, exciting, and fulfilling,” Knopp said. “Families may come out and discover paddle sports through their Riversport Adventures day pass and then get inspired to join a program or a team. Children may even be able to earn a college scholarship or end up standing on a podium representing Oklahoma City or the United States.”

What is being developed along the river, Knopp boasts, is unlike any other outdoor sports venue in the country. “Having such amenities will infuse a robust outdoor and fitness-oriented culture,” Knopp said. “And that will hopefully turn the needle on one of Oklahoma's most challenging metrics.”

by Steve Lackmeyer
Business Reporter
Steve Lackmeyer is a reporter and columnist who started his career at The Oklahoman in 1990. Since then, he has won numerous awards for his coverage, which included the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, the city's Metropolitan...
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All of the Riversport Adventure attractions along the Oklahoma River, including the Chesapeake Finish-line Tower welcome center, are open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays. The attractions will be open until 10 p.m. on July 4.

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