Thursday, September 1, 2016

A Place Called Okmulgee...

It's rare that I get out of Rochester but when I do, I usually end up in other downtowns.  Sad, but true, I am addicted to downtowns - meeting the people, exploring the buildings, seeing what makes the town tick.  They say that admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery, but quite honestly I think I am beyond hope.  Especially when I have enabling friends ready to feed my downtown need.  And on this trip, that friend was downtown consultant and community revitalization rock star Ron Drake.  Lately, he's been doing quite a bit of work in Oklahoma. I've followed his work on social media, so of course I jumped at the opportunity to visit Okmulgee.

They say first impressions are everything and my first impression of Okmulgee could be summed up in one word, opportunity.  The downtown has so many things going for it right off the bat - nice building stock (good bones, as I like to call it), good scale, community gathering space right in the middle of town, and so much more.  But that's just the surface, and only tells part of the story.  To really feel a town, to understand it, you have to go inside so that's what we did. 

Several buildings are in the process of or have already been renovated into beautiful commercial or residential spaces, so of course I had to explore all of that.  My favorite building by far was "The Mac", currently being restored by Rob & Margaret Hess, an amazing couple with more energy and creativity than you can shake a stick at.  It was beyond interesting to hear the stories of what the building used to be and how they made the decision to bring out the natural beauty in the existing structure rather than white box it and start over.  They understood that the building itself is a character in Okmulgee's story and they are committed to making sure that story is told in every door, window and wall. 

We were also fortunate to get a tour of the Orpheum Theatre (yes, they have an operating movie theatre in their downtown - amazing) with owner John McConnel.  In the first five minutes of meeting John, you could tell that the Orpheum is a labor of love for him.  He gave us a tour from front of the house to all the way backstage, relating stories of the restoration of different parts of the theatre over the years.  He is a true success story, bringing first run movies to a small town theatre for his community to enjoy...and it's clear that he loves every minute of it.


Many have asked what was the favorite part of my visit and there really is only one answer.  Remember when I said that to feel a town, you have to go inside? I didn't just mean inside the buildings, but inside the heart - and that means meeting the people.  Towns like Okmulgee don't just happen, they happen because people make a conscious decision that their town is a special place and that it can be better.  And that decision isn't something that's talked about on a front porch on Sunday afternoon, but rather a decision put into action as evidenced by the amount of buildings being restored, volunteers joining the effort and people stepping up to be a part of the movement of Okmulgee Rising.  Are they where they want to be yet?  I don't think so, but they are well on their way.  Community revitalization is a marathon, not a sprint and I can tell you that the people making it happen in Okmulgee are in it to win it and won't stop until they have restored the not only the downtown, but the whole community of Okmulgee.  And I can't wait to visit again!


See you downtown!

Kristi
The Downtown Geek