There was no overstating the importance of the four-month period from September 2008 through December 2008 to the brand-new BOK Center in the mid of John Bolton, general manager of the facility.
"It was a pivotal moment for us," he said. "It was all about first impressions. It was what people experienced their first or second time in the building that was going to keep them coming back or not."
Bolton had reason to be worried. Even though residents of Tulsa County had agreed to pony up $178 million for construction of the arena through the Vision 2025 sales tax, it seemed like a lousy time to be opening such a facility, with the national economy in a freefall.
No one was quite sure how that would impact the new arena. But as the BOK Center celebrates its first anniversary, it seems that question has been answered. By almost any standard, the arena's first year of operation has exceeded expectations, with Tulsans seemingly embracing the BOK Center as an integral part of the city's cultural identity.
Bolton sees that in the way people have continued to flock to the arena. He said it was no surprise when huge crowds poured in to see the Eagles or Kenny Chesney in the BOK Center's first few weeks of operation, given the building's wow factor and the curiosity it had attracted over the course of its construction.
What was more important, he thought, was whether those crowds would continue to materialize over the ensuing months for such acts as Li'l Wayne, Carrie Underwood, Metallica, even the Eagles again. He wasn't disappointed by what he saw.
"It was much more important to me that they go see another show," he said. "That wouldn't have happened if they'd had a bad experience the first time."
Not only did Tulsans keep attending the shows in large numbers, they started bringing along out-of-town guests, folks from Oklahoma City or communities in neighboring states to see what local tax dollars had wrought, Bolton said.
"I think there was a lot of pride in people wanting to show off the building," he said.
By the time 2008 came to an end, Bolton's concerns had evaporated.
"I think our Winterfest (a five-week holiday celebration on the streets outside the area featuring a public skating rink, live music and concessions, which Urban Tulsa Weekly helped sponsor) actually put an exclamation point on our first four months of operation," he said. "It made you proud to come downtown and be in an exciting environment for the first time in years."
It also established Tulsa as a viable market for big-name--and big-ticket--entertainment. Throughout the rest of that first year, such acts as AC/DC, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Jamie Foxx and Paul McCartney made stops at the BOK Center, sometimes at ticket prices that reached several hundred dollars.
Even so, local music fans seemed perfectly willing to pay those prices. Altogether, as of Aug. 20, the BOK Center had welcomed 712,844 people through its doors for events ranging from concerts and conventions to sporting events and the circus.
By the end of the fiscal year on June 30, 2009, the BOK Center had generated $2.8 million sales tax revenue and achieved a $1.1 million profit.
"Those were way beyond what our projections and estimates were," Bolton said, explaining that officials had anticipated seeing sales tax revenues of about $1.6 million and a profit of around $250,000.
Though the Aug. 17 Paul McCartney concert was billed as a celebration of the BOK Center's first anniversary, that milestone officially won't come until three weeks later. Last year's Sept. 6 Eagles concert was the first large-scale opportunity for Tulsans to get inside the facility, and they filled it to capacity.
Bolton said the anniversary celebration will culminate Sept. 17-20 with the Rock 'N Rib Festival, a four-day event featuring barbecue and live music, sponsored by Urban Tulsa Weekly. Bolton hopes to see it become a fixture on the BOK Center schedule.
"We think it could be the other side of Winterfest," he said. "We like creating events that people can be proud of while adding long-term stability for the facility. When the building is seven years old, these are the kinds of things that should still be happening."
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