Although calmer than usual during the COVID-19 pandemic, Norman remains more eager than ever to make himself a place of intrigue for his residents and tourists, already getting back on his feet with festivals, community events and new businesses opening their doors.
But once Norman returns to a certain level of normalcy, where can the city go from there? Is its large tourism economy stabilizing or can it evolve into something more in five, 10 and 20 years?
The answer will lie in how the city invests in various tourism sectors – investments in sports facilities, convention spaces, public parks, festival offerings and more will play a vital role in the decades to come, according to local leaders.
Norman Forward, a plan created by citizens to fund various projects focused on quality of life and tourism in Norman, is the first stepping stone into the future.
So far, he has helped fund various renovations to the park, the Westwood Aquatic Center and the Norman East Public Library.
Visit Norman’s executive director Dan Schemm has his own ideas on how Norman’s tourism industry could move through a program like Norman Forward.
“I would love to see us – after seeing what Oklahoma City has done with the MAPS project and what we’ve done so far with Norman Forward – to find a way to keep this program going after we have completed our current projects.” , said Schemm.
For now, Norman Forward still has some way to go. The initiative’s biggest task is to complete its 87,000-square-foot multi-sport aquatic center, called the Young Family Athletic Center, an investment of nearly $ 58 million for the city. The city has agreed to its funding in the summer of 2020, and the project could take another two years.
The transcript reported in May that the city had missed $ 5 million in funding for the project due to rising construction costs, which caused the city to tone down some expectations for the project. What was to be a 50-meter swimming pool of national appeal will now be 25 meters; the 16 projected basketball courts will now be 12.
As the city considers its appeal to tourists and residents alike, the outdoor offerings will be a key investment for Norman, Schemm said.
The city aims to develop additional outdoor activities for its citizens and tourists, showcasing its nearby lakes and the experiences they offer.
“Norman got off to a good start with his network of trails. You have a partnership between the Department of Transportation and the city to build these kilometer-long segments of 10-foot-wide sidewalk on Hwy 9 to Thunderbird Lake, ”Schemm said. “So over the next 15 years I look forward to a truly connected trail system.”
“Being able to go from Ruby Grant Park to Thunderbird Lake on a trail where you can bike, walk and run – that’s something that I think will be very appealing to tourists and residents. Continuing to take advantage of our great parks that we have and adding trails and amenities to them will be something that will continue to attract visitors as well. “
He expects Thunderbird Lake to be another source of development for the city, which may add low environmental impact activities but encourage more people to visit Oklahoma’s only urban state park.
“Whether it’s by adding a restaurant now, since the Calypso Cove Cafe has been closed for several years, perhaps horseback rentals and opportunities for stages or floating cabins, disc golf and golf courses. other things – nothing that’s going to impact the quality of the water – but we’ll allow all the visitors who come to spend more money while they’re in Thunderbird, ”said Schemm.
Norman does not have the facilities for exhibitions and conventions in 2021; tourists usually have to look north to OKC for events like this. Schemm said the city will look for ways to partner and develop in this space.
Scott Kovalick, general manager of Norman’s Embassy Suites, expects growth in the number of conferences the city hosts, but said he doesn’t expect conventions to be held here.
“The larger conventions will go to downtown Oklahoma City because they have more space there. With the opening of two new hotels – the Hampton Inn and the Holiday Inn – in Norman, we expect more conferences to be held in the city, ”said Kovalick. “In general, the more hotel rooms we offer, the more important conferences we can organize. “
Kovalick said the idea for a convention center in Norman has been in the air since 2014, but “there is nothing in the pipeline” for the construction of this type of facility at this time.
University of Oklahoma football season set to turn already rising urban commerce into a fireball and Red Bull; the six home games and a packed stadium scheduled for this fall and winter will make Norman feel even closer to the pre-pandemic days.
OU’s status as a national powerhouse in varsity athletics brings fans around the world to Norman, with a football schedule that consistently produces talent ready for the NFL and conference championships.
His 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 of Giselle Juarez.
The team’s stadium, Marita Hynes Field, is often at full capacity, with just 1,378 seats. The transcript reports that a plan to build a new stadium was approved by the university three years ago.
Funds are still being raised for the construction of the new facility, which is said to be a $ 25 million project that can accommodate 3,000 people. OU’s baseball field, L. Dale Mitchell Stadium, is also receiving a $ 15 million update.
But beyond OU’s award-winning programs, what reasons does a sports fan have for visiting Norman?
“We are working on the creation of the Norman Sports Commission, so not only these new sites [Young Family Athletic Facility] providing an amazing experience for our kids who live in Norman for recreation leagues and stuff, but we can fill in the gaps when we don’t use it locally to drive sports tourism in the community, ”said Schemm. “The Norman Youth Soccer Association and Griffin Football Sports Complex will have the largest football complex in the state.
“We are talking to a group called Beep Baseball, a baseball organization for blind or visually impaired athletes. The Young Family Athletic Facility with volleyball courts, basketball courts and large swimming pools will also be ideal for events in 15 years.
The “City of Festivities”
Norman is proud of its reputation as a “city of festivals,” but embodying that moniker has become difficult as COVID-19 swept the country.
Many festivals have been canceled, postponed to this year, or moved to an online-only environment. Today, many of the traditions that were the mainstays of Norman’s nickname are back, and Jazz in June executive director Norman Hammon believes the upward movement will continue.
“I’ve spoken to a lot of people over the years and recently during the pandemic, and people are moving to Norman because they want to feel the liveliness of our scene. Our city of festivals offers that on almost every level, ”said Hammon. “We have big festivals, small festivals, then we have theater and we have dance, then we have all the other things that skyrocket our quality of life.
“I can tell you that, because we meet once a month – all members of arts organizations meet in what is called the ‘Roundtable on the Arts and Humanities’ – and I have never worked with a more dedicated group of people who really do what they do as a public service, who are dedicated to bringing the best of arts and pro-arts programming to Norman. “
Hammon and Jazz in June still air their performances on public radio KGOU to reach a wider audience throughout the year, but they intend to evolve their festival by incorporating more elements of live broadcasting and of video.
“We want to keep our festival similar to what it has been in the past, but maybe repeat it by adding video interviews and video features for some of our artists,” Hammon said. “We would love to be able to record everything and put it on Youtube, but we want to make sure that it makes economic sense for us.”
Ann Eckart, coordinator of the annual Norman Medieval Fair, has a similar strategy for the future. In a “normal” year, the fair draws thousands of people to Norman for each of its three days each spring.
“We have a wish list so that we can live stream from our different stages as well, even things like our lectures or prom, but the funding and tech resources that we would need are just not there yet to make those dreams come true. “, Eckart mentioned.
A city keen to make itself interesting for citizens and tourists alike may run into obstacles along the way, but leaders say Norman will keep going. Exhibitions, trails leading from one nearby lake to another, expansion of public parks and sports facilities – the progress and development of tourism will be a mainstay of the city for decades to come.