If you haven't been to south central Oklahoma lately, you should make plans to visit soon.
The expansive area — which includes all or parts of Bryan, Carter, Coal, Garvin, Grady, Jefferson, Johnston, Love, Marshall, McClain, Murray, Pontotoc and Stephens counties — is chock full of new construction, renovated structures and attractions sure to satisfy most tourists.
Among the highlights are a new casino, visitor center and chocolate factory, as well as a reinvented Artesian Hotel and the Chickasaw Cultural Center, which opened in 2010.
Accompanying the development is a new branding effort. In January, the Chickasaw Nation and the Arbuckle Country Marketing Association announced a name change. Arbuckle Country was replaced by Chickasaw Country, creating a more cohesive identity for the area and saving advertising dollars.
“We saw this as a way to promote the region and the state and all the amenities we have to offer,” said Paige Williams, director of tourism for the Chickasaw Nation. The partners launched a website, www.chickasawcountry. com, that includes a trip planner, making it easier for tourists to find information about events and attractions.
“You have to be really strong in digital media,” said Shaundra Blundell, vice president of media relations for Koch Communications, the public relations firm representing the Chickasaw Nation Chamber of Commerce.
“You have to be more visual. People want information when they want it. They don't want to do a lot of research to find out where they want to go. We also set up social media channels” on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Foursquare, Google+ and YouTube.”
The website includes a blog by experienced travel writer Brooke Clay. She's enthusiastic about her work, saying online that she has “the most incredible job in the world.”
In truth, there's reason to be excited about the area.
“We have 7,600 square miles of activity,” Williams said. “We have activities for all ages and for every age group,” including fall foliage tours and the Chickasaw Annual Meeting and Festival Sept. 29 to Oct. 6 in Tishomingo.
The Chickasaw Country brand already is successful, said tribal Gov. Bill Anoatubby.
“We plan to continue developing new venues and attractions which will highlight the natural beauty, diverse cultures, rich history and artistic community found in Chickasaw Country,” he said in an email.
Here's a closer look at developments in the area.
On July 12, Anoatubby joined tribal and local officials for a groundbreaking ceremony at the site of what will be the Chickasaw Nation Visitor Center at the intersection of State Highway 7 and U.S. 177.
The visitor center will be constructed of native stone, copper and glass and will include an information desk, orientation theater, multipurpose gallery, restrooms and a gift shop, as well as office space on the lower level.
Visitors will walk on natural slate flooring beneath wood ceilings and will enjoy the splashing sounds of a cascading water feature.
Designed by Oklahoma architectural firm Frankfurt-Short-Bruza Associates, the center has been awarded LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. Certifications are granted to ecologically friendly projects with sustainable features and innovative designs, according to a news release.
The center will be adjacent to the historic Artesian Hotel, which began life in 1906 as the New Winston Hotel. It boasted 110 rooms, a swimming pool and a grand lobby and dining hall, according to www.artesianhotel.com. The hotel burned to the ground in January 1962. A modest hotel sprang up in its spot but lacked the cachet of the original. It tottered its way across succeeding decades but was demolished in 2006 to make way for a modern hotel. The new Artesian aims to evoke images of the hotel's stately past, while at the same time delivering the latest technological amenities. The hotel and visitor center — along with the Chickasaw Cultural Center, which has attracted more than 150,000 visitors in the past 14 months — form a gateway into the Chickasaw National Recreation Area, which is popular with campers.
The recreation area includes the park lands of the Platt Historic District and the 2,350-acre Lake of the Arbuckles.
Chocolate lovers rejoice. A Bedre' Fine Chocolate factory is going up along Interstate 35.
The chocolate company, created by an Ada businessman in the 1980s, offers a variety of chocolate extravagances, including meltaways, clusters and crisps. The Chickasaw Nation purchased the candy company in 2000. Currently it operates retail stores in Pauls Valley and Ada. The Davis facility will encompass 34,600 square feet. Visitors will be able to tour the factory, and children will enjoy hands-on activities.
Nearby will be a Chickasaw Nation Welcome Center. At the 5,500-square-foot center, tourists will be able to purchase original Chickasaw art work. They can make use of public restrooms, let Rover stretch his legs in a dog park and allow children to burn off steam in a playground.
Workers continue to build Saltcreek Casino, which will be Grady County's first gaming center.
The casino will occupy 190 acres of previously undeveloped land about seven miles north of Chickasha on U.S. 81.
“Crews have worked tirelessly to get to this point, and people in the region have taken notice of the significant headway that has been made,” Bill Lance, CEO of the Chickasaw Nation Division of Commerce, said in a news release.
The road will connect the casino to the U.S. 81 interchange. The north walls of the casino are finished; remaining walls still are being built. Two bridges — one 100 feet, the other almost 200 feet — will cross Salt Creek and a pond.
Saltcreek Casino will be modest in size, including about 556 electronic games and six table games. It will include a restaurant, bar and gift shop.
Who would've thought that Thackerville would be home to the second largest casino in the world?
Earlier this year, WinStar World Casino climbed from third place to second, according to an annual report by Casino City Press, which covers the gaming industry.
WinStar rose in the rankings on the strength of a 62,000-square-foot expansion project, which increased casino floor space to 442,000 square feet, according to a news release.
Added features include three restaurants and the MIST nightclub. The new restaurants are El Fenix, a chain Mexican eatery; Capisce Ristorante Italiano, which offers Italian fine dining; and Le Paris, a bakery and coffee shop.
Other amenities include a 27-hole golf course, several other dining options, music and comedy acts, and 500 hotel rooms. The casino includes more than 6,800 electronic games, 112 blackjack and poker tables and a Global Events Center that will seat 3,400 people.