MIAMI — Just like renovating a house, Oklahoma Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell wants to spruce things up a little at the “front door” of the state
That includes a major overhaul of the tourist center near Miami along the Will Rogers Turnpike.
“We are very excited about it. I think our first impressions matter,” said Pinnell, who also is the state’s Secretary of Tourism & Branding. “We’ve needed to invest in our ‘front door’ to our state for a very long time. That is why it’s a project I took on,” he said.
The construction work at the Miami center will make it all touch free and will expand its space and add new amenities.
“As the secretary of tourism and branding, we’ve seen it in the research: this is the crossroads of America,” Pinnell said. “We have millions of people who are visiting our welcome centers. What perception do they have of this state when they come into Oklahoma and see our welcome centers? That’s why we have done brand new ‘Welcome to Oklahoma’ signs. We are going to do brand new landscaping around those red-rose granite signs as well.
“Our welcome centers are going to be some of the best in the country. So when someone comes through Oklahoma, they are going to say ‘hey, Oklahoma’s got their act together! I like this state. If they pay this much attention to details like this, maybe I should look what else is going on in Oklahoma.’ That can lead them to spending more money on a Main Street.”
Getting tourists to jump off at Miami and check out the attractions here or around Grand Lake is a key, he said.
“If we can get people to Miami to see everything from Route 66 to the Coleman Theatre to the great arts scene, they may think that if they are retiring in a couple years, they may want to move there,” Pinnell said. “Or they may want to relocate their business. You have to see the community first.”
Improved directional signage is next on the agenda for the state, according to Pinnell.
“We’re working with the Oklahoma Department of Transportation to make sure that we implement a master plan when it comes to signage,” he said. “That is something we’ve desperately needed for years, so we are working with ODOT on that right now. I am envisioning the first quarter of next year, you will start seeing some new signage.”
According to figures produced by Dean Runyan and Associates in a 2018 report for the Oklahoma Department of Tourism & Recreation, the economic impact of Oklahoma’s third largest industry — tourism — delivered $9.6 billion in direct visitor travel spending.
This was a 7.3 percent increase over 2017.
Tourism in Oklahoma produces 103,600 jobs annually, which was a 2.7 increase over employment total a year earlier. There have been 21.5 million visitors to the state in recent years.
Locally, the northeast Oklahoma region saw gains in the four counties that represent the Grand Lake Oklahoma region.
Ottawa County recorded $337 million in direct visitor spending.
Delaware County was next with $194.6 million.
Mayes County had $49.8 million recorded and Craig County finished the year with $18 million in new dollars generated from visitor spending.
Ottawa and Delaware Counties combined at $531.6 million in direct visitor spending places the far northeast Oklahoma county area at third in the state behind only Tulsa County at $1.4 billion in spending and Oklahoma County at $2.4 billion in spending by visitors.
Pinnell said the Oklahoma Fishing Trails program, which marked its first year in June has been “wildly successful.”
It was launched in 2019 and is designed to make Oklahoma the No. 1 fishing state in the nation — and increase tourism revenue in the process.
It highlights 38 lakes — including Grand — and rivers across the state, as well as 20 additional fishing destinations.
“We’re getting about a 160-to-1 ROI (return on investment),” Pinnell said. “So for every dollar I am spending, the state of Oklahoma is getting $160 back. It’s one of the more successful tourism trails in America.
“We couldn’t be more thrilled with the economic impact that that trail has provided to small business owners across Oklahoma. Northeast Oklahoma is blessed to have the amount of lakes.”
Pinnell is impressed with the push spoonbill fishing around the Neosho River and Twin Bridges Area at Grand Lake State Park receives.
“That’s one of the more popular trips in the state today — going out and snagging a paddlefish,” he said. “It’s just such a great photo op.”
The state will play a key role in the 2026 centennial of Route 66, which runs through Quapaw, Commerce, Miami and Afton in Ottawa County.
“It’s very important — it’s been the center of all of our marketing efforts at the Department of Tourism now,” Pinnell said. “We have more miles of the most famous road in the world than any other state, so we have to play to that strength.
“I know we are in the middle of COVID, but people are starting to get back out and they are starting to do American road trips because its safe and you can social distance well.
“We are saying ‘if you want to see America, you’ve got to see Oklahoma.’”