When ONEOK Field, the new home of the Tulsa Drillers baseball team, opens in a little less than two months, it will represent another step in what has turned into a major effort to revitalize downtown.
But it will be only one of three developments that will play an important role in the future of the Greenwood District, where the new ballpark is located.
The Drillers are scheduled to play their first game at ONEOK Field on April 8 when they face Corpus Christi. Around the same time, construction on John Hope Franklin Park, located just west of the ballpark, should be finished. The completion of that project will allow Greenwood officials to kick off their fundraising campaign for the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation, an accompanying $12 million institution based at the park that focuses on education, scholarship, community outreach and archives in the areas of equality, racial justice and social harmony.
Greenwood officials also plan to break ground soon on a multi-use development at the corner of Greenwood Avenue and Archer Street that could bring the area dozens of new residents when it is completed in the summer of 2011.
Leading the effort to get all those projects done is Ruben Gant, president and chief executive officer of the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce. The chamber owns and manages much of what is left of the original, historic Greenwood District, a group of 10 buildings located north of Greenwood and Archer that houses approximately a dozen businesses, as well as nonprofit organizations and state agencies.
"Our focus was to create some awareness and get some retail clients down here," Gant said of his efforts since taking over as head of the chamber in 2002. "We've done a pretty good job of doing that, but we still didn't have the foot traffic. That's really the opportunity the ballpark brings to us, the foot traffic, which will inherently create greater awareness. It gives us the opportunity to educate Tulsa about the history of Greenwood."
For most Tulsans, mention of the Greenwood District conjures up images of the infamous 1921 race riot that resulted in hundreds of deaths and injuries, and the destruction of 35 blocks of what had been known as the "black Wall Street," a thriving commercial district for the city's African-American population. It was the worst such incident in American history.
But the district has passed through several incarnations since then, both good and bad, with the near future offering perhaps the most promising opportunity for Greenwood to regain its former luster. The construction of the Oklahoma State University-Langston University campus at the north end of the district several years ago has solidified that region of Greenwood, and now the area that lies south of the college campus is primed for renewal.
But the story of Greenwood's renewal has been lost in comparison with a similar rejuvenation being planned for the adjacent Brady Arts District, which created a splash with the recent unveiling of a small-area plan for the district that includes the construction of a large park and the addition of an ambitious streetscaping plan.
Gant said he would like to see relations between Greenwood supporters and its neighbors become stronger, particularly because they all stand to benefit from the opening of ONEOK Field--and each other.
"It didn't make very much sense that you had two significant historical districts that abut each other--three in this sense, if you throw in the Blue Dome district--and there not be any visible synergy or collaborative efforts to improve all of the districts," he said. "That's what we're seeing today. We've had our issues, but they've been minor up to this point. Those issues will gradually go away."
In regard to his own district, Gant is most excited about the two-phase development in the works for the intersection of Greenwood and Archer. The development originally was planned for the site where the ballpark is being built--an area bordered by Interstate 244, Elgin Avenue and Archer Street--but was relocated after those plans were announced.
The first phase of the development will be a multi-story project that features retail space on the first floor and 67 loft apartment units upstairs.
The as-yet-unnamed project is scheduled to break ground in the fall.
"We're actually in the planning stages for that," Gant said. "We're going through the process of securing funding right now, solidifying our design plans in preparation to do the construction documents."
The second phase will be located on another corner of the same intersection and will feature additional retail and loft living space, though the size of that project hasn't been determined.
"The concept is to create affordable housing down here," Gant said. "We think that there is a market that's being ignored up to this point. Most of the development that has occurred (downtown) has been skewed toward upper-income wage earners. So we think there is an opportunity to fill a niche for working families."
Gant said the projects are being designed and constructed so that rentals can go for the neighborhood of $1 a square foot. The north side of downtown is home to a number of other planned loft projects, but many of them will feature rents that are beyond the means of many Tulsans.
"They can't afford it," Gant said of those prices. "So we think that's a real opportunity."
He's also anticipating the completion of John Hope Franklin Park, the park being constructed in honor of the legendary Tulsa historian who died in March 2009 after a lengthy and distinguished career at Brooklyn College, the University of Chicago and Duke University, among other academic institutions.
The footings for the park have been poured, and the artwork is scheduled to be put in place in March, Gant said.
"We're finalizing that part of it, and the sculptor is now prepping the artwork for shipping, and it should be erected within a month," he said. "Because of the weather, we're looking at an April completion date for the park. It was scheduled originally to be completed in November."
The park's impact should be considerable, he said.
"It's going to be one-of-a-kind," he said. "You're not going to be able to find anything like it anywhere in the United States."
Gant said the center will address an issue that remains on the forefront of American society, race relations.
"It's the need for different cultures and different groups from different backgrounds to become a little bit more understanding of people and cultures that don't look like them or is not their's--not necessarily to conform but more to understand and respect," he said. "The park deals with all that. Most people think it's a memorial to the race riot. But it's much more than that. Although the history of the race riot is a part of the park, it's not the park itself."
Gant acknowledged the amount of money required to build the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation is substantial, but he believes the uniqueness of the center will allow supporters to be successful despite having to compete for philanthropic funding with a number of other recently announced projects, including a series of attractions in the Brady.
"We're addressing America's issues, we're addressing Tulsa's issues . . . about the need for us to coalesce and live together in a more peaceful environment, a more respectful environment," he said. "I think there's a difference there. I don't think we'll be competing directly. Certainly, charitable groups are stretched thin just like everybody else, but we're just not totally going to depend on the private sector to help us build this park. There is enough of a momentum and need where there will be some public participation.
"Being sanctioned by the National Park Service helps, as well," he said. "If we can get final certification as an affiliate from the National Park Service, that opens the doors for us to go after public dollars, as well."
The Perfect Place, Except for Parking
Of course, the most immediate--and highest profile--change to come to Greenwood will be the opening of ONEOK Field, which is expected to bring a slew of Tulsans to an area many of them have never visited.
"You have to be excited about the possibility of bringing 400,000 people into the district in any given year," Gant said. "What's amazing to me is there are people here that have been lifelong Tulsans that have never been in the Greenwood District. So this is an opportunity for us to expose those unfamiliar faces with the district. It's an inherent marketing opportunity.
"People come down to areas that they're unfamiliar with, and there's a curiosity factor there," he said. "So if they like what they see, if they feel comfortable, they have choices to shop and browse, eat, it's going to be a repeat clientele. So we hope to take advantage of that."
What many of those visitors will find is a historic district that dates from the early 1920s. While only a fraction of the original business district remains, the buildings that have survived are in excellent condition, thanks to an extensive renovation that took place in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The Greenwood Chamber took over ownership and management of the structures and their 48,000 square feet of retail and office space in 2000, and has maintained an occupancy rate of 95 to 98 percent since then. Six new tenants have moved in since Gant joined the organization in 2002, and the district will welcome its newest business when a restaurant called Fatburgers opens its doors April 1, just in time for the season opener at ONEOK Field. That should bring occupancy up to 100 percent, he said.
Gant is excited about the possibilities the ballpark's opening will bring to the district, but he doesn't anticipate that change will be a smooth one. Asked to describe what he envisions for the district in early April, he provided a blunt answer.
"Mass confusion, because people aren't going to know where to park," he said. "Some people aren't going to know how to get down here. They've never been here. Some people will be hesitant to come because they're going to be thinking, 'Oh, wow, is it safe?' Well, it's downtown. If you don't think downtown is safe, then you certainly won't think Greenwood is safe.
"But if you have no fears about going to downtown, if you have no fears about going to the Brady Theater, if you have no fears about going to any of the eating establishments in Brady, if you don't have any fears about going to OSU-Tulsa, then you shouldn't have any fears about going down to the Greenwood District to a baseball game."
Gant envisions Greenwood becoming a point of destination in the not-so-distant future.
"I think all the things down here are conducive to attracting not just Tulsans down here but out-of-towners down here," he said. "People already come down here to see what is the Black Wall Street? So I think this is going to add to that allure. John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park and Center, I think, is not only going to be a national draw, but an international draw, as well. We could become, for a particular genre, the destination point in the United States."
As for what lies ahead for Greenwood throughout the longer term, Gant is ready to leave that to someone else.
"Once we finish all this, it'll be time for me to ride off into the sunset," he said, smiling.
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