The birth of ONEOK Field
How hundreds of people, working thousands of hours, made the ballpark a reality.
What culminates in early April with the first pitch at ONEOK Field, Tulsa’s new downtown baseball stadium, began well over a decade ago.
“We’ve had talks about a new facility going back as far as 1998,” says Chuck Lamson, president and majority owner of the Tulsa Drillers, which will call ONEOK Field home.
That was the year the Bricktown Ballpark opened in Oklahoma City. Seeing that facility made an impression on Lamson.
There were space and access limitations to Drillers Stadium, the team’s home since 1981, and not even $6 million in renovations could completely overcome the drawbacks.
Although he says he felt no pressure to move from either the Texas League or the Drillers’ major league parent, the Colorado Rockies, by 2006 Lamson was seriously considering his alternatives.
One option was to move the team to a downtown location, a possibility that dovetailed nicely with then-Mayor Kathy Taylor’s focus on downtown development. An East Village site held promise for a time but was eventually dismissed. Another option was to move the franchise to Jenks, and in August 2007 Lamson signed a non-binding letter of intent to further explore that possibility. Not everyone was excited about that idea.
“I got four of our city councilors together with some local leaders,” Taylor says, “and asked, ‘Do we think it’s important to Tulsa to keep the Drillers in the city? And if so, how would we propose to do it from a financing standpoint to help them build a stadium?’”
In a January 2008 report titled “The Expected Impact of a Downtown Tulsa Stadium,” economist Dr. Mark Snead estimated that a ballpark would likely attract 400,000 visitors per year to downtown and generate $13 million annually in sales, plus another $4.4 million in payroll and $485,000 in annual sales tax revenue, including $160,000 for Tulsa.
With numbers like those in the offing, Taylor was convinced that keeping the Drillers in Tulsa had to be a priority. Some heavy-duty homework aimed at discerning how to finance the venture commenced in early 2008.
“We went through a very intense due-diligence period to make sure we could afford the kind of stadium that was needed and that we didn’t spend any money unnecessarily,” Taylor recalls. “It was a team effort with Chuck and his team of advisers, the city and private investors led by Stan Lybarger.”
Lybarger served as chairman of the Tulsa Metro Chamber board of directors in 2008. He says he believed that a ballpark would further a downtown rejuvenation that began with construction of the BOK Center and continued with upgrades to the Tulsa Convention Center. As he saw it, proximity to those venues was critical.
“All of our experience and research said that it is really important for a community to put their entertainment facilities in a single location to mass their attractions so they can benefit fully from ancillary development like restaurants, hotels and the other things that drive economic growth,” Lybarger says.
Funding the venture
But nothing could be built without money, so Lybarger spearheaded an effort to raise at least part of the estimated $60 million required to build a stadium and renovate surrounding areas.
He found 26 private donors and sponsors willing to put in from $100,000 to multimillions toward the plan. Lybarger and a group of likeminded ballpark proponents (including Kathy Taylor) also organized what the Tulsa City Council approved in September 2008 as the Tulsa Stadium Trust.
The Trust’s mission: to construct and operate a baseball stadium in downtown Tulsa. In addition to the $30 million pledged by private donors (including $5 million pledged by ONEOK and the ONEOK Foundation to obtain naming rights to the stadium), the Trust proposed that an additional $25 million be generated through a 30-year downtown property assessment district. The Drillers would pay a tenancy fee to fund the remaining $5 million. Despite initial skepticism in some quarters, a majority of downtown property owners came to support the plan and the city council eventually approved the proposal.
Still, the Trust needed to find a location, and attention turned to a long-vacant lot at the corner of East Archer Street and North Elgin Avenue in the historic Greenwood district adjacent to downtown.
As fate would have it, the Tulsa Development Authority owned the site, which had been optioned for redevelopment by the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce. The Greenwood Chamber agreed to give up that option in exchange for two other nearby site options, and in short order the Development Authority transferred the land to the Trust. Because the Trust was organized as a component unit of the City of Tulsa, the city was, in essence, simply giving itself the land, making the project less expensive than it otherwise would have been, Lybarger says.
Breaking new ground
With construction imminent, Lybarger asked donor and trustee Arlo DeKraai to serve as chairman of a five-person Construction Committee reporting to the Trust. DeKraai accepted on the condition that a project management firm be retained to oversee the operations, and Tulsa-based Stonebridge Group was selected for the job. The first task: Find a construction company.
“We prepared a request for proposals to go out to contractors,” says Reed Woods, president of Stonebridge. “That request was for a ‘design-build services’ construction delivery format. In that format, one entity submits a proposal to complete all design work and construct it, completing the whole structure under one contract.”
Four requests went out, three proposals were received and Manhattan Construction was ultimately selected for the job on a design-build lump sum contract, with a guaranteed maximum price of $39.2 million.
As part of its proposal, Manhattan partnered with design firm Populous (formerly HOK Sport) of Kansas City, Mo., to do the architectural work. An official groundbreaking ceremony was held on Dec. 19, 2008, with the ambitious goal of having the ballpark ready for occupancy and use in spring 2010.
“From January 2009 to the end of February 2010, we had to not only design it but build it all, too,” says Bob Jack, project manager for Manhattan. “That cycle usually takes anywhere from 22 to 24 months, and we pared it back to 14 months.”
Part of what made that accelerated schedule possible was assistance from the city to get necessary permits in weeks instead of months. Manhattan also worked with more than 35 subcontractors along the way, including many local companies.
“The thought all along was that since the businesses downtown are paying a portion of the cost over the course of the business district assessment, it would be nice to keep that money in Tulsa,” Woods says.
Tulsa-based Paragon, for example, handled site utilities and excavation, including removal of an unexpected 4-foot-thick layer of limestone found just below the stadium site.
Other local contractors included Bennett Steel, Green Country Interiors (framing, drywall and ceilings), Palmer Mechanical and Faith Technologies (electrical). United Golf, a division of Paragon, constructed the playing surface.
In addition to looking for opportunities to hire local contractors, Manhattan also honored then-Mayor Taylor’s request that it respect the history of the Greenwood area by working with minority contractors whenever possible. Approximately 18 percent of Manhattan’s subcontracts on the ballpark project went to minority enterprises.
“Of all the groups I’ve worked with, Manhattan Construction and Bob Jack did an exceptional job of not just using minority contractors but literally mentoring minority contractors to increase their capacity so they could assist in building the stadium and benefit from it,” Taylor says.
Nor was the construction process the only aspect of the project to be influenced by history. Lead project designer Steve Boyd of Populous was the man behind the look of the stadium, and he says many of the design decisions his firm began making in April 2008 were influenced by local history and, to a great extent, geology.
“Three things influenced me the most,” Boyd says. “First, the history of this region, with oil deposits, earth and strata. The tower of the stadium, for example, is covered in black zinc panels, almost like oil flowing up out of the ground.”
Continuing that theme, a 30-foot-tall oil derrick adorns the corner of Archer and Elgin streets and is intended to serve as a focal point for visitors to the ballpark. According to Boyd, the various shades of brick and different lengths of gray and black zinc panels (imported from France) on the façade of the stadium are meant to evoke the layers of the land. As a side benefit, both the brick and zinc are natural, ecologically “green” materials.
Boyd’s second influence was art deco, embodied by the brick but perhaps most noticeable in a series of 21 square cast medallions that adorn the outside of the stadium. The medallions reflect a number of key “players” within the project, including the history of baseball, the city of Tulsa and the Greenwood locale.
“The Greenwood site was the third major influence,” Boyd adds. “Entries to ballparks are a key element of design and are typically placed in significant areas. We decided to work within the existing buildings of Greenwood to create an entrance on that side of the field.”
With April upon us and fans gathering at the gates to ONEOK Field, it’s no surprise that expectations are running high for what the freshly minted facility will bring to downtown Tulsa. Mayor Dewey Bartlett and a host of others are decidedly optimistic.
“Oklahoma City has done well with a downtown ballpark, and the city of Denver has a major league ballpark in the downtown area, and it has helped with the continuing development there,” Bartlett says. “I don’t think we realize the significance of what it’s going to do to downtown Tulsa and how it’s going to assist the economic development of this town.”
As president and CEO of the Tulsa Metro Chamber, Mike Neal also sees the new ballpark as a catalyst for all of Tulsa County.
“Tulsa County is going to benefit in years to come from the increased property taxes generated by the new investment in the downtown region,” Neal says. “And the city of Tulsa will benefit from the sales taxes generated not just in the stadium but also in surrounding businesses. The stadium will go a long way toward helping us develop a 24-hour downtown, where people are living, working, playing and visiting.”
Reuben Gant, president of the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce, sees economic opportunities ahead.
“For Greenwood, the ballpark is going to bring pedestrian foot traffic to the area,” Gant says. “That’s a plus, because some lifelong Tulsa residents are not aware of the history of Greenwood. The stadium will help expose 400,000 people a year to that history.”
And improvements to the Greenwood area are not ending with completion of the ballpark. In hopes of fostering sustained growth in the area, the George Kaiser Family Foundation has developed a master streetscaping plan for much of the region. Tulsa Stadium Trust redevelopment monies will fund property acquisitions around the ballpark and the ballpark itself.
The streetscaping will include LED streetlights, matching trees, landscaping, benches and other amenities running east along the Brady corridor that helps connect ONEOK Field to the BOK Center.
Given the scale of the predictions for success at play around the city, it’s understandable, perhaps even inevitable, that Drillers owner Chuck Lamson would take this moment to temper expectations just a touch.
“I would not be presumptuous enough to say we’re going to be all the answers,” he demurs. “We can be part of the long-term answer to drawing people downtown, but it will be an ongoing process for years and years. Our job is to do as good a job as we can and be successful and then see what else can happen.”
What’s in a name?
ONEOK has a vested interest in creating a vibrant downtown.
For starters, the energy company has been located in downtown Tulsa since 1926.
Then there are its nearly 1,300 Tulsa employees, many of whom work and play downtown and some of whom who would like to live downtown — if only there were more residence options.
So when former Mayor Kathy Taylor invited ONEOK President and CEO John Gibson to a meeting at the home of William K. Warren, Jr. to discuss making a significant addition to downtown, he did not hesitate to say yes.
At the meeting, which also included Tulsa Drillers owner and President Chuck Lamson, the group discussed a recent announcement that the City of Jenks was interested in moving the Tulsa Drillers out of Tulsa. Warren challenged Gibson and other Tulsa business owners to give downtown a chance to become the Drillers’ new home, Gibson says.
Naturally, he got on board, and from that visionary group of initial stakeholders arose the now-completed ONEOK Field.
ONEOK made news again in January 2009 when the company purchased the naming rights to the downtown stadium for $5 million — the ONEOK Foundation contributed $4.15 million, while ONEOK corporate contributed $850,000.
Gibson says that initially ONEOK had committed to contribute the $5 million to Tulsa’s River Parks, but when that initiative fell through, he saw the ballpark as an equally beneficial investment in the city’s future.
Over the past year and a half, Gibson says he has enjoyed seeing the ballpark come to life just beyond the view of his company headquarters. The project has also sparked multiple discussions among his employees, who are equally excited to be involved.
“There’s a lot of pride in ONEOK Field,” he says.
On opening day, Gibson will be among the other Drillers fans making their way downtown. He says he has invited Taylor; Reuben Gant, president of the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce; and others who played a significant role in bringing ONEOK Field to life to join him in the company suite. While likely much of their discussion will concern the beauty of the ballpark and the opportunities it could hold for downtown development, they also have other plans.
“We’ll also sit back, eat hot dogs and enjoy the game,” Gibson says.
Sounds like a home run.