The New Cool

Many historic buildings in Claremore have been renovated while recovering and restoring historic features. Photo by Robert Melton.

[dropcap]All[/dropcap] the cool kids are doing it: living downtown in small cities or gathering in urban sectors in need of revitalization – and participating in community renewal thanks to the continuing successes of the Oklahoma Main Street program.

OMS is a volunteer-driven, public-private partnership that uses a proven organizational structure. The program concentrates on revitalizing historic commercial districts and neighborhoods and emphasizes historic preservation, says Buffy Hughes, director of Oklahoma Main Street, which is part of the state Department of Commerce. Since its inception in 1985, OMS efforts have resulted in $1.5 billion reinvestments in more than 60 Oklahoma communities with more than 1.4 million hours of labor donated by volunteers.

Efforts can be as simple as a community cleanup day of raking, painting and sprucing up to as ambitious as raising funds to renovate eye-sore buildings into multipurpose assets.

“Entrepreneurs in Oklahoma have done a great job setting up businesses that are located on the first floors of multi-story buildings, but now we are seeing a push for upper floor housing,” Hughes says. “People want to live again where they work, shop, dine and play. From millennials to baby boomers, they say all the time they don’t want long commutes; they want to feel a part of a vibrant community, and that includes living in those historic commercial districts again.”

Heather Sumner leads Okmulgee’s OMS and points to a slew of awards and accolades earned over the last three decades. But perhaps dearest to her heart is the successful launch of #OkmulgeeRising, a downtown residential project.


The Gazebo park in Claremore provides a public meeting place.
Photo by Jessica Jackson.

“Seeing our community come back to life one building at a time – we have sold 28 buildings in our district in the last three years – has been both humbling and invigorating,” Sumner says. “The #OkmulgeeRising effort we started to revitalize the downtown buildings for modern day use for loft living and new businesses has turned into a citywide effort.”

Hughes praises Okmulgee’s success.

“Private citizens didn’t wait for someone else to ‘Be the Change.’ They purchased buildings around the square, such as the McBrayer and Parkinson buildings, and are turning these spaces into a mix use of businesses-retail on the ground floor with second floor residential lofts,” she says.

The Orpheum Theatre in Okmulgee is located in the former Cook Opera House. Photo by Kristin Branham.

From Stroud, the most recent community receiving a designation, to longer-running OMS programs in Bartlesville, Duncan, Tahlequah, Oklahoma City and Tulsa, Hughes says each project has its own success story. For example, Stockyards City in Oklahoma City is building an equestrian park to bring new life to that historic district, and hopefully, eventually, a new arena and stables.

In addition, Claremore’s Main Street was named a National Historic District in 2016, says Hughes.

“Claremore Main Street has seen nearly $20 million reinvested into the downtown community, including $7 million in the last year alone,” says Jessica Jackson, director of that city’s program. “We’ve welcomed 80 businesses and created 175 new jobs. Additionally, sales tax dollars downtown have gone up by more than 50 percent in the last three years. We can do that through dedicated volunteers who’ve invested nearly 23,000 volunteer hours, about 3,000 of which were in 2016.”

2016 Impact

  • The Oklahoma Main Street program began in 1985 and shows no signs of slowing down. In 2016, the program:
  • Received $77 million in total investments from public and private donors
  • Created 414 new jobs
  • Racked up 71,802 hours from volunteers