Yesterday, I walked the small town of Okeene, Oklahoma, through a process to help them expand their tourism potential. We used the 8 Rural Culture Elements from Kansas Sampler Foundation. I wanted to share some of the discussion with you, in hopes it will encourage you to take a fresh look at your local tourism assets.
I asked questions, and the people told me about their town. Most of the people there learned something new through the process. Here’s what we learned.
Architecture. Okeene’s Catholic Church is a stunning gem for a small town. Could we find other churches by the same architect and create a driving tour? Okeene also has several nice natural stone buildings, including the Chamber of Commerce!
Art. Beyond the one big mural, Okeene doesn’t have a lot of public visual art. They do have a huge Red Dirt Music festival that would be the envy of any small town.
Commerce. It just so happens that Wilkinson Mortuary was the business of the month at the Chamber, and we got to hear the history of how the building started as a hospital, how the original owner converted it to a mortuary, and how different families had owned it. Every business in town has a story. Those individual stories taken together tell a larger story that can draw visitors.
Cuisine. Long ago, every town had a flour mill. Okeene has one of the few remaining, now part of the Shawnee Milling Company. Their flour goes into everything from Sara Lee products to dog biscuits to the VAP specialty bakery products, made in my hometown of Alva. In more traditional cuisine, Okeene’s Whippet Stop is a wonderful old time cafe. When I asked about ethnic cuisine, everyone said, with one voice, “Delgado’s.” And if you come during the Rattlesnake Hunt, you can try the rattlesnake meat. Really.
Customs. The annual Okeene Rattlesnake Hunt is probably the best known Okeene tradition. Another annual tradition is the Whea Esta festival. It’s a cross between a local version of the county fair and a heritage festival. I live about an hour away from Okeene, and I didn’t know anything about it. I think this is their huge, undiscovered tourism gem.
Geography. Okeene is in a mostly flat area of prairie, but with plenty of wildlife and open space.
History. Okeene has a rich history. Just the story of where the town got its name is interesting. The town site is at the boundary of two Native tribal areas. Early town leaders decided to create a word, taking the “Ok” from Oklahoma, the “ee” from Cherokee, and the “ne” from Cheyenne. There is no other town in the US named Okeene. That means they can own this word online. It’s much easier to dominate the search results if you don’t have to compete with 27 other towns named Springfield.
People. This is where I ran out of time for my short presentation, but it’s clear that Okeene has a strong asset in its people.
Now that Okeene has assessed the local assets, it’s time to follow up. The Chamber of Commerce is heading in to their annual planning sessions, and I’m sure enhanced tourism will be in their plans.
There are lots more follow up ideas on the Kansas Sampler website.
So the challenge to you is to gather a group of locals plus a new comer or two, go through the 8 elements, list off some of your most untapped assets, and find new ways to bring visitors to your town.
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