City waterfront becomes river of dreams

By Steve Lackmeyer

The Oklahoman


Fireworks exploded over the Oklahoma River one weekend last spring as the city celebrated competitions among youth rowers on the river and Olympic kayakers on the newly opened RiverSport Rapids.


Much has been written about the opening of the rapids, the latest MAPS 3 addition to a river that 20 years ago was an eyesore and embarrassment. But that weekend last May was a significant moment in the city's history, a time when reality matched the dreams of late civic boosters Ray Ackmerman and Aubrey McClendon.


My very last communication with both men was about the river. They poured their hearts and souls into the transformation we are seeing. Their legacy along the river can't be debated. Ackerman has a statue commemorating his contribution. McClendon's legacy will be honored, as well.


The Oklahoma River is one of the best representations of the public-private approach to community investment that started with the passage of the original MAPS initiative in 1993. That five-year, penny sales tax funded only the creation of dams, trails and landscaping along the six-mile stretch of water that flows south of downtown between Eastern and Meridian avenues.


It was McClendon and Chesapeake Energy that funded the first boathouse, followed by other boathouses and additions funded by Devon Energy, SandRidge Energy, Blue Cross/Blue Shield Oklahoma and other corporate sponsors.


That investment prompted city residents to support a MAPS 3 penny sales tax that paid for stadium lighting for nighttime regattas along the river and the brand-new RiverSport Rapids.


And yeah, we really do have an amusement park along the river again, a century after the last one, Delmar Gardens, was abandoned due to a mosquito problem, flooding and Prohibition.


This new amusement park is RiverSport Adventures. It's a place where anyone can take a shot at kayaking through a recreation of river rapids. The SandRidge Sky Trail hovers above it all — a structure that has one of the country's largest slides, a ropes course, a bungee jump and a zip line over the river.


A kids' park, along with a “cloud” bounce and smaller versions of amenities found on the Sky Trail, offer plenty of activities for kids. A bike course and rock-climbing walls offer recreational amusements that do not involve getting into the water.


The regattas already earned the Oklahoma River a national reputation in the rowing and kayaking community. The RiverSport Rapids, meanwhile, has generated interest from kayaking crews from as far away as New York.


The next wave of growth along the river is unfolding farther west at Western Avenue, where Blair Humphreys is overseeing the transformation of the former Downtown Airpark into Wheeler. The district will be a mix of housing, retail and entertainment that began with the opening of the Ferris wheel the Humphreys family bought several years ago on eBay from the owners of the Santa Monica Pier in California.


And more attractions are planned, including an equestrian park and possible amphitheater.


The Oklahoma River is an investment that took 20 years to pay off — but after a lot of dreaming, hard work and uncertainty, the dreams of Ackerman, McClendon and so many others indeed are continuing the transformation of an eyesore into a unique destination that is set to become an economic powerhouse for years to come and significant change for many Oklahoma City families.