Postcard From Southeastern Oklahoma

by Bristol Mealor

Tourism increasingly is the lifeblood of many Oklahoma communities, particularly in the scenic southeastern corner of the state.

Those in the know have long sought out southeastern Oklahoma’s rolling hills, outdoor fun, and lodging options from cabins to casino mega-hotels. 

But the area long lacked the cool factor, something it now has in abundance. Two names are responsible — Reba McEntire and Blake Shelton. Their investments in their hometowns of Atoka and Tishomingo, along with Hochatown’s exploding popularity, have put the region on the map well outside the Sooner State. 

But can the area’s experience translate to the rest of Oklahoma, as tourism increasingly becomes an economic engine? 

Some policymakers think more needs to be done to promote tourism and business development, from Broken Bow to Boise City. 

Bringing people in 

Tourism promotion falls under the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department. Economic development is under the Oklahoma Department of Commerce. 

That could soon change. Senate Bill 1447, by Sen. Kristen Thompson, R-Edmond, would restructure the state’s economic development. Thompson envisions modernizing economic development through a one-time investment of $698 million (money that was earmarked to bring Panasonic’s battery manufacturing to the state). 

Thompson projects a return of 8%, allowing for $55.8 million to be invested in business development, retention, expansion and recruitment annually. 

“We’ve really seen the need for a strategic and focused department to handle economic development, business recruitment and business expansion in the state,” she said of her push to create a new agency to oversee these efforts. 

Blame COVID-19. Like elsewhere, the virus hammered Oklahoma’s economy. Southeastern Oklahoma fared better, however. Durant grew at a terrific 5% rate. Tourism has allowed the region to flourish. Talking about tourism in Oklahoma used to elicit snickers from some, but now it’s a heavyweight.

“The beautiful thing about tourism is that a lot of time, it’s new dollars,” Thompson said.

The view from Durant 

Tourists want great local restaurants, family activities, a range of lodging, rich culture and a beautiful backdrop. Southeastern Oklahoma has all of these. 

Locals benefit from tourists’ dollars, directly and indirectly. 

“I’m very excited to see the growth we’re experiencing and the larger retailers that are coming in because they offer some things that we don’t have right now,” Durant spokeswoman Rebecca Carroll said. 

The region has its share of hidden gems, like outdoor art. 

“There is a trail, if you will, that goes from 4th Avenue to 1st Avenue that allows you to see all of our sculptures and murals,” said Jeremy Spence, director of the Durant Area Chamber of Commerce. 

Tourism has put communities on the map. Hochatown is among the nation’s hottest AirBnB markets. It wasn’t even a town a few years ago. The state’s communities have uniqueness they can lean into. 

“I think that we are doing a pretty good job, you know, especially during COVID because we didn’t close down our state parks, and they were packed,” she said.

Now, the job is letting the world know: Southeastern Oklahoma is here to stay, even though it never left. 

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