A Place for Everyone
interview with tony moore
photography by gathering place
Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Gathering Place is a one-of-a-kind destination: a massive, free, community-focused waterfront park. Executive director Tony Moore discusses the effort it took to build the park, its attractions, and what the park means to Tulsans.
How does Gathering Place reflect founder George Kaiser’s values?
George is a native Tulsan who made his fortune in oil and banking, and he’s truly a supporter of the city he lives in. Ten years ago, major corporations and talent were leaving for markets such as Dallas, Houston, and Austin; George knew this would spell disaster for the city. It was his idea to make Tulsa a more vibrant place to live, work, and play so we would retain our talent and attract young families. He thought that a park could do just that.
But not just any park. George gave the first $200 million and asked for the rest to be a collaborative effort among stakeholders, corporations, foundations, and private donors in Tulsa, who donated the next $200 million. The city gave the remaining $65 million. To date, it’s the largest private donation to a community park in the history of the United States.
Tell us about the effort to build it:
The park is slated to be a total of one hundred acres, around seventy of which opened in 2018. Phase One was a massive collaboration of just under 2,000 area trades, from masonry to woodworkers to construction workers. The topography where the park was built was gentle-sloping and flat, but our landscape designers, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, elevated it as high as sixty feet in the design.
The construction took just over four years; we spent one year just moving the dirt to create the drastically different topography. We have over 1.2 million plants and shrubs, and just shy of 7,000 trees, many of which were preserved during construction. Most of the rocks displayed in the park were quarried locally and the landscape has a blend of native plants, so there’s a strong Oklahoma presence in the texture of the park.
Sustainability and eco-consciousness are at our forefront. We have geothermal wells for our buildings that assist with heating and cooling, as well as a three-acre lagoon, from which we pump and filter naturally flowing water for irrigation. It’s a natural and healthy environment that aligns with our ecology and our experience.
How many people visit, and where do they come from?
In our first full year of operation, we experienced about 2.9 million visitors. But our attendance is seasonally impacted. For example, during spring break, our busiest season, we average about 20,000 visitors a day, which is on par with a major theme park in Orlando. In addition to Tulsans and other Oklahomans, many come from markets like Austin, Dallas, Little Rock, and Kansas City.
Gathering Place seems like it has theme park size and variety but in an urban park setting—and with no admission price. Is this unique?
It absolutely is, and I appreciate you pointing that out. I came from the theme park industry in Florida, and the investment in Gathering Place is on par with some of those parks, but it’s designed specifically with a social mission of bringing people together regardless of age, culture, socioeconomics, race, or zip code—it’s a very inclusive space for everyone to feel welcomed and comfortable.
Our objective is to treat our guests as if it’s a first-class paid experience, and we spend the necessary money to make sure that programming is free. In fact, I often see visitors debating when they enter: “Where’s admissions? Is this free?” They’re just taken by it. This gives us a point of difference from any park.
We like to say that there are over one hundred unique experiences to be had while visiting the park, and that makes it repeatable because you can’t truly experience it all in one day. So whether it’s our most popular attraction—zip-lining—or spending time at Adventure Playground, jogging, biking, or walking along our dozens of miles of trails, playing sports, kayaking, canoeing, dining in one of three restaurants or just enjoying quiet, there’s so much to do.
Would you elaborate on the educational focus of the park?
That was quite intentional. The park is for all demographics, but children are at the forefront of what we do here. Before we opened the park to our regular guests, we had soft openings that involved 30,000 elementary school kids. Our Adventure Playground was primarily designed for learning through play. Some attractions require kids to collaborate with each other and use teamwork. It certainly encourages a sense of exploration.
In addition to the intentional design of the park, education is a major part of our programming. We have daily, free activities curated by our education team in coordination with world-class curriculum partners. There is everything from Art Start, to STEAM activities, field trips, story time, mobile libraries, nature walks, and more, all with rotating lessons that make learning through play come to life.
Cultural integration is an intentional focus at Gathering Place. Oklahoma might not be nationally recognized for its cultural composition, but it is, in fact, quite culturally diverse. We have one of the largest Native American communities in the country, and our park is even built on Native American land. Through partnership with our local communities, we intentionally create authentic cultural programming, such as festivals and concerts, that specifically caters to these audiences. We have created cultural events that we believe to be authentic programming for all our demographics, including Hispanics/Latinos, African Americans, and Asian Americans. We’re happy when we hear Tulsans say they didn’t realize that there was so much diversity in the city until coming here.
How have people responded to Gathering Place?
The appreciation that the community has shown us by embracing the park as its own is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. There’s an emotional attachment to the park beyond the visit. When people visit Gathering Place, they don’t feel like they’re in Tulsa—it really feels like they’re in a world-class park.
The national attention we’re getting also gives Tulsans a strong sense of pride. We’ve received wonderful accolades: National Geographic, Time magazine, and USA Today are among those who named us on their “best of” lists. Admittedly, I did not quite expect it to be so well-received to this level. But we’re humbled and thankful for it, and we’re so appreciative for what this is doing for Tulsa.
For more info, visit gatheringplace.org