Back in 2004 Oklahoma City leaders were approached with a deal they were told they couldn’t refuse. But they did. Here’s the story I wrote back then:
Nobody at City Hall doubts that a 17-story sculpture of an American Indian will draw travelers off the interstates.
But Oklahoma City officials, while enthusiastic about the project, still had questions after meeting Tuesday with artist Shan Gray.
Promoters of a planned American Indian Cultural Center along the North Canadian River have yet to announce $5 million in matching private funds needed to secure more than $60 million in state and federal funding for the museum. The city is a contributor to the museum, as well as to the Oklahoma Land Run Monument being built along the Bricktown Canal.
Gray insists the city doesn’t need to worry about the $26 million price tag for “The American.”
“I’m not going to do anything without showing them we can’t do it with the funds we have,” Gray said. “The beauty of this project is it’s a gift to the state.”
Gray said the project is a for-profit venture that will pay for itself, including an endowment for its long-term upkeep. He is asking Oklahoma City and Tulsa to provide sites and infrastructure including roads and utilities.
Gray’s proposal calls for the winning city to share in the monument’s ownership in exchange for the land and for visitors to pay to ride an elevator inside the sculpture to a viewing platform.
The project would be administered through two entities, Gray Deer: The American Project LLC and The American Project Inc., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
The Edmond artist’s previous work includes a statue of Olympic gold medalist Shannon Miller, and he has been in talks for the past several weeks with Tulsa officials about building his dream sculpture in the state’s second-largest city. Gray estimates the project’s economic impact will range between $500 million and $1.6 billion a year.
“It will be a benefit to whichever city gets it,” Gray said. “They know it will increase their tourism.”
Gray said he plans to select a site by April 1, with completion before the state’s April 2007 Centennial celebration.
The project originally was intended for Oklahoma City, Gray said, but site selection moved to Tulsa after the sculpture was left out of the proposed Native American Cultural Center being planned along the North Canadian River between Interstate 35 and Interstate 40.
Blake Wade, director of the Oklahoma Centennial Commission, said the sculpture was turned down because museum promoters feared their project would be overshadowed by such a large structure.
Gray said investors, whom he would not identify, urged him to reconsider Oklahoma City for the sculpture, with prime sites near the crossroads of I-35 and I-40 and Bricktown.
Councilwoman Willa Johnson, whose Ward 7 includes the interstate junction, welcomed the project — if it doesn’t require support from the city’s operating budget or from federal grants.
Ward 3 Councilman Larry McAtee said the project, which would include elevators allowing tourists to visit an observation deck inside the sculpture, reminds him of New York’s Statue of Liberty.
“It is a very intriguing concept,” McAtee said.
Mayor Mick Cornett, a proponent of interstate tourism, also expressed cautious support for the project.
“We’re interested — we’ve got to be,” Cornett said. “Our single largest untapped resource is I-35 and I-40 and all the traffic we have along there.”
Cornett said if the city is chosen, questions remain, including a site and the city’s involvement.
“It’s such a large project, and the upside is so large, you have to look at it,” Cornett said. “But you can’t help but look at worst-case scenarios. And the worst-case scenario here is the thing not being properly funded, so the city would have to protect itself.”
Being a pesky reporter, I was relentless in asking the public relations folks employed at the time with The American to list the financial backers. Such detail was repeatedly refused. Sources claimed there was an effort to play the OKC/Tulsa rivalry bit, that there was a message of “If Oklahoma City doesn’t jump at this, Tulsa will.”
Oklahoma City didn’t jump at the deal. Tulsa did. Year after year promoters promised construction was on the verge of getting started, that financing was just about complete. Six years later, we have an interesting update from the Tulsa Business Journal. Tulsans are being told if they don’t rally behind the project, other cities (once again, no names), might succeed in current efforts to grab it for themselves.
Read the Tulsa Business Journal story here