Tulsans of the Year: Gathering Place Visionaries
The generous donors behind the Gathering Place give a record $400 million to create a park for all Tulsans.
Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates
For only the second time in the history of TulsaPeople, the Tulsan of the Year is not one individual. It’s Tulsans plural.
The only other time was in 2004, when the magazine honored voters who approved the Vision 2025 sales tax increase — a move that kept jobs in Tulsa and built the BOK Center, to name a few benefits.
This year, TulsaPeople recognizes the contemporary visionaries — corporate donors, philanthropists and park leaders — of the Gathering Place, Tulsa’s iconic public park opening this summer, as the Tulsans of the Year for 2018. They have earned their place in history.
Nearly 80 donors have joined the George Kaiser Family Foundation to contribute $400 million to create and endow the Gathering Place, comprised of 100 acres facing the Arkansas River and linked by two unique land bridges across Riverside Drive to River Parks.
Phase I of the park, which will be completed in summer 2018, is 66.5 acres from East 27th to 31st streets on the east side of Riverside Drive and from 27th to almost 35th along the west side.
The donors’ collective gift is the largest to a municipality in the history of the United States. The second biggest gift was $100 million for New York City’s Central Park in 2012.
Why would Tulsans build such a costly park? The late John H. Williams, CEO of Williams Cos., summed it up when the idea was broached four years ago. This will be transformative for Tulsa, he said.
Williams himself had transformed downtown Tulsa in the 1970s with the Williams Center skyscraper, the Williams Center Green and, with then-Mayor Robert LaFortune and others, promoted public-private financing to build the Performing Arts Center. In 2013, more than 40 years later, Williams saw plans for a new public-private partnership that would again change the city.
Echoing Williams, many believe the Gathering Place can change Tulsa’s national identity. “We hope that it will help our companies recruit and retain employees,” says project mastermind George Kaiser, the Tulsa oilman, banker and philanthropist. “We hope it will be a place where all of our children and grandchildren want to return as they raise their children.”
It also has the potential to be a unifying element in the community. “What great urban parks do today is bring people out of isolation,” says Gathering Place Executive Director Jeff Stava. “People have grown apart. We want to bring Tulsans together for a better community.”
More than 1 million visitors are expected to visit the Gathering Place annually. “It will bring people from around the world to our city and set the stage for an even brighter future for Tulsa,” says Mayor G.T. Bynum.
How it began
Kaiser didn’t envision a central gathering place out of a nostalgic memory of a park. “I try to divorce my charitable investments from my life experiences and personal preferences,” he says. What he wants to do is “solve problems that reflect larger community needs.”
In 2013, Tulsa had lost the spring in its step, Stava says. The 2007 bond issue for development of the Arkansas River had failed, largely because of suburban votes. Downtown revitalization of the Arts District and Guthrie Green had not yet begun. It was a time of economic decline.
“True visionaries realize what great cities need,” Stava says. “Great cities have great gathering places.” Enter Kaiser and GKFF.
“Tulsa was losing its strong sense of community,” Kaiser says. “We were more divided by geography, race and class than before. A large central park might heal that divide.”
Additionally, the city needed a powerful draw for corporate recruitment and economic development to help it compete with Houston, Dallas and other metropolitan areas. Looking for solutions, Kaiser and GKFF saw the need to revitalize downtown, especially for young singles and arts patrons, and then marshal public-private funding to accentuate the power of the river for families.
In 2014, GKFF pledged $200 million for the park. Williams Cos. became the lead donor with a $16 million challenge. Other corporations followed, and so did the city’s famously generous philanthropic foundations and families for a total of nearly $200 million.
The City of Tulsa and Tulsa County joined with $65 million for infrastructure improvement of the park area funded through an Improve Our Tulsa and Vision 2025 sales tax extension.
Research and design
Planning for the park had begun in 2011 with community engagement and public meetings that addressed issues from design to food and drink in the park.
The Brooklyn-based Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates has designed public spaces — parks, gardens, campuses — around the world. The founder’s philosophy is that urban parks should be made for people to use, not just for beauty and meaning. The New York company was hired.
Consultants included the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Army Corps of Engineers, the City of Tulsa, INCOG, Tulsa County, the River Parks Authority, a scientific team (comprised of a soil scientist, an ecologist, a hydrologist and a sound engineer) and an economic team of restaurant and park management consultants.
Germany’s Richter Co., known for trend-setting playgrounds, was chosen for its daring European outlook on outdoor play. Its wooden playground equipment includes giant climbing towers.
California Skateparks, which has built creative skateparks from China to Australia, customized a skateboard park specifically for Tulsa.
Crossland Construction enabled the historic project to be built within budget and of the highest quality, Stava says.
Safety and security have to be top of the line, he adds. The Gathering Place operations team consulted with experts from the Department of Homeland Security to local law enforcement agencies and settled on a security system with ample surveillance and staff. Stava says the result will feel more like “guest services” and less like Fort Knox.
How much is $400 million?
The cost of this elaborate park is more than the annual budget of some nations. It’s almost as much as the government budget of the Solomon Islands, more than that of Vatican City, and of Grenada and Saint Lucia combined.
Why did Tulsans give so generously?
For Williams Cos., the answer is three-fold: commitment to Tulsa’s river development, a corporate belief in being the best and paying homage to its two great leaders, John Williams and Joseph Williams.
“Tulsa has always been a city of people who dream big, take chances and make it happen,” says Alan Armstrong, president and CEO. “It will be the best public park in the nation.”
For Haliburton, the park honors the company’s deep roots in the state — it employs 3,600 Oklahomans, 300 of them in Tulsa — and celebrates its thousands of employees, says Vice President Eric Williams.
He says the park’s size and potential impact exceeded expectations.
“The river seemed like a boundary, not a feature, but the Gathering Place remakes that story,” Williams says.
For the H.A. and Mary K. Chapman Charitable Foundation, the park is a spectacular amenity that will add to the quality of life in Tulsa, says Trustee Jerry Dickman.
“It is so extraordinary, it will draw those searching for the best place to work, live and raise their children.”
He says it will appeal to people of all ages, all economic levels and a wide variety of interests.
This is precisely what Kaiser had in mind.
“We thought we could help rebuild a sense of community,” he says, “by gathering together people from all parts of the city and from all backgrounds and experiences and rediscover that we are more alike than we are different.”
People behind the park
Historian David McCullough famously said history is people. The same might be said of the Gathering Place. The park is the people who conceived, funded, designed, built and now operate the extraordinary attraction.
The park will employ about 45 full-time park management positions and up to 200 part-time employees during peak summer activity. Proceeds from the park’s $100 million endowment will pay for all park operations, programming, maintenance and security. The 14 leaders recruited to run the park represents a dream-team combination of large park industry veterans and professionals with Tulsa and Oklahoma roots.
Tony Moore, executive director of the Gathering Place, is a Jamaica native who comes to Tulsa from Florida, the theme park capital of the world. His professional background — working for Tampa’s zoo, Orlando’s SeaWorld and Universal Studios — was heavily revenue-driven, so he arrived asking, “What’s the business model? What’s the return on investment?” He could barely believe the Gathering Place would have no admission charge.
“It will redefine the mindset of a public park,” Moore says. “It’s not a theme park; it’s a public park with theming.” Toddlers to seniors will return for educational, cultural and sports activities, including big production shows. Other cities will emulate Tulsa’s private-public collaboration, he says, but for now the Gathering Place is one-of-a-kind.
Josh Henderson, senior operations officer, is a University of Arkansas graduate who previously worked at Myrtle Beach Water Park in South Carolina. He is responsible for all physical aspects — everything from security to cleanliness. “When I give tours,” he says, “people are speechless. The entire experience, from scale to design, is one of awe. Tulsa will be blown away when they see what this park has to offer.”
Heavy landscaping filters the noise, Henderson says. There’s no sense of being in the middle of a city. “I can’t wait to see kids playing in the park with their friends and family,” he says. His personal favorite area is the overlook at the ONEOK Boathouse, “a special place to have a cocktail and look at the skyline and river.”
The boathouse’s full-service restaurant, with its stunning overview of the park, river and downtown, also is a favorite of Richard Shoucair, director of business analysis, another Tulsa transplant from Florida. “A lot of dreams and hard work went into this before we got here,” he says. “In Orlando, I’d seen it all, but what we have here is so unique it is absolutely breathtaking.”
Magnitude of the park
For now, we can only imagine the magnitude and grandeur of the space. The property has been under construction for three years. Once the park is open to the public, Jeff Stava says visitors will discover that world-renowned landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates has designed a Central Park-type space popping with “wow” features for recreation, nature and culture.
Those of us who have been around Tulsa for a while can remember the iconic B.B. Blair mansion with its large, level front lawn stretching to Riverside Drive to mimic a Southern plantation. Amanda Murphy, the park’s senior marketing officer, is a native Tulsan who says topography is one of the most startling changes of the Gathering Place. “It’s not flat anymore,” she says.
Building this park wasn’t done by timid mice scratching in the grass. It was more like the brawny work of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. During peak construction, 650 people were employed. Massive amounts of earth were evacuated, moved and hauled in to build hills and valleys, to construct elevations reaching 53 feet and to reconfigure the river bank so that it swells out into the water.
The QuikTrip Corp.’s Great Lawn, the former Blair private property, is the center of the park. Its heart is the 5-acre Chapman Charitable Foundations’ Adventure Playground, with playground equipment and installations never before seen in the United States.
The dramatic Williams Cos. Lodge, with a three-story fireplace and floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows, offers views of Oklahoma’s spectacular sunsets. The contemporary ONEOK Boathouse with a pavilion roof includes a restaurant and panoramic views.
The lodge and the boathouse are extraordinary, says George Kaiser, “but it may be the peaceful pocket parks and the hidden discovery areas that provide the distinguishing ambience.”
Visitors will see 8 miles of paths and nature trails in a landscape planted with 5,789 trees of 118 different species and 16.75 acres of wildflower gardens. The areas have romantic names designed for Oklahoma’s summer heat: Sky Garden with seasonal plantings to please gardeners; the Four Seasons Garden with walls of natural stone; the Wetlands Gardens with aquatic plantings; and Swing Hill, the park’s highest point, which has a variety of swings for adventure lovers of all ages and abilities.
Water features in the park include kayaking and canoeing at Peggy’s Pond. Guests will keep cool at Mist Mountain, home to the Flying Fish feature and the water maze, a children’s play fountain, two of Kaiser’s personal favorites.
The Adventure Playground is designed for every stage of childhood development and robust interaction with nature, from the Ramble sensory garden with labyrinths and a hedge maze to the Land of River Giants with colossal depictions of native wildlife, to the Fairyland Forest infused with fantasy.
Teens and young adults will appreciate the BMX bike track and the skatepark for skateboarders. The Riverview Passage land bridge will be an unrivaled place to watch Fourth of July Fireworks.
It’s all for people
The magic of the innovative park is its combination of place and programming. Kirsten Hein, senior programming officer, has 15 years of experience with parks and recreation in Prince George’s County, Maryland, and the Chicago Park District, two of the nation’s stellar park venues.
“My heart is in free programming for children to gain new experiences,” she says. “We’re providing new places for kids to learn.” The Gathering Place’s programming will range from large-scale events for 300-plus to smaller educational programs for about 20 individuals.
With GKFF’s signature dedication to early childhood education, it is no wonder that the first Tulsans to have a sneak preview of the Gathering Place were groups of elementary school children. They visited the park’s Reading Tree, the oldest and biggest cottonwood tree in the park and the site of a puppet stage for storytelling and reading events. The tree also is the symbol of an online campaign to encourage literacy, illustrating GKFF’s emphasis on reading and support of Tulsa area schools.
One of the more unusual features is the art to be showcased in the park. “Local and internationally renowned artists will be a feature,” Hein says, “including performances not seen before in Tulsa, and all free and open to the public.”
Performances might include dance, theater, musicians, acrobats, magicians, jugglers and more on the Great Lawn’s big stage, mobile stages through the park and the round stage in the children’s playground. “We are challenged to provide world-class experiences, and our team is committed to that,” Hein says. “The sky is the limit.”
The grand opening this summer will include special events, Hein says, but details are secret and tantalizing. “We’re planning big,” she teases. “Something big and something special.”
Big and special — just like the Gathering Place itself.
- QuikTrip Corp.
- H.A. and Mary K. Chapman Charitable Foundation
- Bank of Oklahoma
- George Kaiser Family Foundation
- Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation
- Joe Craft
- FW Murphy Family Foundation
- Helmerich Families
- Magellan Midstream Partners
- Nadel Gussman LLC
- Charles and Peggy Stephenson
- T.D. Williamson
- Richard A. Williford Family
- Zinke Family Fund
- Zarrow Family Foundations
- AAON Inc.
- Kathy Craft
- Hille Family
- Pat and Don Hardin
- Laredo Petroleum
- McElroy Manufacturing Inc.
- Stuart Family Foundation
- Unit Corp.
- Will Smith
- Bovaird Foundation
- John Steel Zink Foundation
- Susan and William, Jill and Robert Thomas Families
- Davis Brothers Entity
- Blue Cross Blue Shield of Oklahoma
- JPMorgan Chase
- Bernsen Family Foundation
- Bumgarner Family
- Fulton and Susie Collins Foundation
- Mike and Pat Case
- Dekraai Family Foundation
- D and L Oil Tools
- Frank and Gayle Eby
- Hale Family Foundation
- Stephen and Shelley Jackson Family Foundation
- Bonnie Klein
- Mabee Foundation
- Pete and Nancy Meinig
- Melton Truck Lines Inc.
- Omni Air International
- DTAG Legacy Fund/Scott and Vanessa Thompson
- J.T. Nikel Family
- Founders of Doctors’ Hospital Inc.
- Judith and Jean Pape Adams Charitable Foundation
- Stuart and Linda Price
- Pam and Tom Russell
- Bryan Close
- Meshri Family
- Bob and Jackie Poe
- Sherman Smith Family Foundation
- John Smith
- Cox Foundation
- Sarah and John Graves
- Ernie Kivisto/Jane Ann Maconi Kivisto
- Mabrey Bancorporation
- Joe and Darcey Moran
- Peter Walter
- Becky Dixon and Pat Keegan
- Fred Jones Family Foundation
- Kathy and Ed Leinbach
- Samson Resources
- Darden Family Foundation
- Mike Turpen