Jul. 28—Though quieter than usual during the COVID-19 pandemic, Norman remains eager as ever to make itself a place of intrigue to its residents and tourists, already getting back on its feet with festivals, community events and new businesses opening up their doors.
But once Norman returns to some level of normalcy, where can the city go from there? Does its important tourism economy plateau, or can it develop into something more in five, 10 and 20 years?
The answer will lie in how the city invests in varying sectors of tourism — investment in athletic facilities, convention spaces, public parks, festival offerings and more will play vital roles in the coming decades, local leaders say.
Norman Forward, a citizen-created plan to fund various quality of life and tourism-based projects in Norman, is the first stepping stone into the future.
So far, it's helped fund various park renovations, the Westwood aquatic center and Norman Public Library East.
Visit Norman Executive Director Dan Schemm has a few ideas of his own on where Norman's tourism industry might take itself through a program like Norman Forward.
"I would love to see us — having seen what Oklahoma City did with the MAPS project and what we've done so far with Norman Forward — to find a way to keep that program going after we finish our current projects," Schemm said.
For now, Norman Forward still has a ways to go. The initiative's largest task at hand is finishing its 87,000-square-foot multi-sport aquatic center, called the Young Family Athletic Center, a nearly $58 million investment for the city. The city agreed on its funding in summer 2020, and the project may take another two years.
The Transcript reported in May that the city had fallen $5 million short in funding for the project due to rising construction costs, causing the city to tone down some expectations for the project. What was to be a nationally-appealing 50-meter swimming pool will now be 25 meters; the 16 projected basketball courts will now be 12.
As the city considers its draw to tourists and residents alike, outdoor offerings will be a key investment for Norman, Schemm said.
The city aims to develop additional outdoor activities for its citizens and tourists, highlighting its nearby lakes and the experiences they offer.
"Norman is off to a great start with their trail system. You've got a partnership between the Department of Transportation and the city on building these mile-long segments of 10-foot-wide sidewalk out on Highway 9 to Lake Thunderbird," Schemm said. "So in the next 15 years, having a truly connected trail system will be something that I look forward to."
"Being able to go from Ruby Grant Park all the way out to Lake Thunderbird on a trail where you can bike, walk and run — that's something that I think will be very attractive to tourists and residents. Continuing to build upon our great parks that we have, and adding trails and amenities to those will be something that will continue to draw visitors as well."
He expects Lake Thunderbird to be another source of development for the city, which can add activities that have a low environmental impact but encourage more people to visit Oklahoma's only urban state park.
"Whether that's through the addition of a restaurant now, since the Calypso Cove Cafe has been shut down for several years, maybe some equestrian rentals and some opportunities for either floating stages or cabins, disc golf courses and other things — nothing that's going to impact the water quality — but we'll allow all of the visitors that are coming to spend more money while they're at Thunderbird," Schemm said.
Norman doesn't have the facilities for expos and conventions in 2021; tourists generally have to look north to OKC for events like that. Schemm said that the city is going to look for ways to partner and develop in that space.
Scott Kovalick, general manager for Norman's Embassy Suites, expects growth in the number of conferences the city hosts, but said he doesn't expect conventions will be held here.
"The larger conventions are going to go to downtown Oklahoma City, because they have more space there. With the opening of two new hotels — the Hampton Inn and Holiday Inn — in Norman, we do expect more conferences to be held in the city," Kovalick said. "Generally, the more hotel rooms we can offer, the larger conferences we can have."
Kovalick said the idea of a convention center in Norman has been up in the air since 2014, but "there's nothing in the pipeline" for construction on that type of facility right now.
Football season at the University of Oklahoma is standing by ready to turn the already upward-sloping city commerce into a ball of fire and Red Bull; the six home games and a packed stadium slated for this fall and winter will make Norman feel even closer to pre-pandemic days.
OU's status as a national powerhouse in college athletics brings fans from all over the world to Norman, with a football program that consistently produces NFL-ready talent and conference championships.
Its softball team is a tide of ferocity under Patty Gasso, who just won her fourth national title behind the strong swing and stronger smile of hitter Jocelyn Alo and electric pitching from Giselle Juarez.
The team's stadium, Marita Hynes Field, often finds itself at capacity, with only 1,378 seats. The Transcript reported that a plan to build a new stadium was approved by the university three years ago.
Funds are still being collected for the construction of the new facility, which would be a $25 million project that seats 3,000. OU's baseball field, L. Dale Mitchell stadium is getting a $15 million update too.
But beyond OU's award-winning programs, what reasons does a sports fan have to visit Norman?
"We're working on creating the Norman Sports Commission, so not only will those new venues [Young Family Athletic Facility] provide an amazing experience for our kids that live in Norman for the rec leagues and other things, but we'll be able to fill in the gaps when we aren't using it locally to drive sports tourism to the community," Schemm said. "The Norman Youth Soccer Association and Griffin Sports Complex over there for soccer will have the largest soccer complex in the entire state.
"We're talking to a group called Beep Baseball, a baseball organization for athletes that are blind or visually impaired. The Young Family Athletic Facility with volleyball courts, basketball courts and large swimming pools will be great for events in 15 years as well."
The 'City of Festivals'
Norman prides itself on its reputation as "the City of Festivals," but embodying that moniker became difficult as COVID-19 swept the country.
Many festivals were canceled, postponed to this year or moved to an online-only environment. Now, many of the traditions that were pillars of Norman's nickname are back, and Jazz in June Executive Director Norman Hammon thinks the upward swing will continue.
"I've talked to a lot of people over the years and recently during the pandemic, and people move to Norman because they want to feel the liveliness of our scene. Our city of festivals provides that on almost every level," Hammon said. "We have big festivals, little festivals, then we have theater and we have dance, then we have all the other things that just make our quality of life soar.
"I can tell you, because we meet once a month — all the arts organization people meet in what's called the 'arts and humanities roundtable' — and I have never worked with a more dedicated group of people who really do what they do as public service, who are dedicated to bringing the best in art and pro-arts programming to Norman."
Hammon and Jazz in June always air their performances on KGOU public radio to reach a wider audience through the year, but they intend to evolve their festival by incorporating more live streaming and video elements.
"We want to keep our festival similar to what it's been in the past, but maybe iterate on it some by adding video interviews and video features for some of our artists," Hammon said. "We'd like to be able to record everything and put it on Youtube, but we want to make sure it makes sense economically for us."
Ann Eckart, coordinator of Norman's annual Medieval Fair, has a similar strategy for the future. In a "normal" year, the fair draws thousands to Norman for each of its three days each spring.
"We have a wish list of being able to live stream from our various stages too, even things like our lectures or ball, but the funding and technological resources we would need just aren't there yet to make those dreams come true," Eckart said.
A city eager to make itself interesting to citizens and tourists may run into bumps along the road, but leaders say Norman will press on. Expos, trails leading from one nearby lake to another, expanded public parks and athletic facilities — progress and development in tourism will be a pillar of the city for decades to come.