It’s been six months since opening ceremonies unveiled the BOK Center, and area restaurants and retailers are raving about the perks of having such a magnetic new neighbor.
The BOK Center, a 19,199-seat venue christened with an open house attended by thousands last August, is the centerpiece of Tulsa county economic development and capital improvement package Vision 2025, passed by voters in 2003. The arena, comprising an entire city block at Second Street and Denver Avenue, was built at a construction cost of $196 million – that’s $178 million in taxpayer dollars, $18 million more in privately funded upgrades.
By any estimate, that’s a lot of taxpayer coin. For their money, Tulsa County citizens can now boast a hometown venue ranking in the upper tiers of event centers across the U.S. Since its first door-busting show, The Eagles concert on Sept. 6, the BOK Center has drawn acts ranging from Larry the Cable Guy and Walking with Dinosaurs to Metallica and Bruce Springstein. Thanks to 114 total events, the BOK Center had profited $4.6 million, with more than $25 million in ticket sales, by March 5. Initial revenue estimates for fiscal year 2009, which runs July to June, were $6.6 million adjusted; now the Center is looking at bringing in $7.4 million adjusted by June 30.
While the arena delivers big bucks to the coffers of the city, county and state powers-that-be, hungry concert goers and their discretionary cash are fattening the bottom lines of eateries as far as south Midtown. Some report as much as a 50 percent jump in business on nights when the BOK Center is hopping with a big event.
“Having 500,000-plus patrons coming to events at the BOK Center on an annual basis changes the dynamic and adds a base of customers for any new or existing restaurant or retail business,” said John Bolton, general manager of the BOK Center.
“When you’re going to go out to a concert or special event, you’re going to go eat first,” said Suzann Stewart, senior vice president at the Tulsa Convention & Visitors Bureau. “And, you’re going to go someplace close by so you’re close to facility. All of those areas immediately around downtown – Cherry Street, Brookside, Utica Square – have tremendous opportunity to do better business.”
Eat, Drink and Be Merry
When Casa Laredo Latin Grill & Tequila Bar owner Edith Rojas steps out onto the sidewalk at the new location of her restaurant, the BOK Center looms large to the northwest.
The restaurant, a 20-year tradition in Tulsa now at 4th and Cheyenne, opened with the aim to please the downtown lunch crowd, but nights at Casa Laredo since the opening of the BOK Center have been “very busy, wild nights,” Rojas said.
Business is up 50 percent when the BOK Center doors are open, which pits Rojas against that coveted problem in a restaurant industry in the throes of economic slowdown: “a lot of the time we don’t have enough places for everyone to sit.”
A few blocks southeast at 514 S. Boston Ave. is Elote Cafe & Catering, a Mexican-inspired lunch spot open since last summer. Libby Auld, proprietor chef at Elote, opened her doors to the dinner crowd for the first time late last month.
The move to open nights was partly due to the hubbub at 2nd and Denver, “because after every large BOK event, I’d have a message on the answering machine here that said, ‘We’re here at the Brad Paisley concert, and we wish you were open,’ or, ‘We’re going to see Fleetwood Mac. Are you going to be open that night?’”
While the increasing demand for the Elote product – a low- to mid-priced menu starring organic and often locally produced food Auld has coined “Fresh Mex” – is the central reason she has extended her hours, “the arena does play a huge factor.”
“People come down here now at nighttime. People are starting to see that downtown is a safe place to be at night and that they can eat before an event down here.
“I get to work on Boston. It’s the most beautiful street in downtown Tulsa,” she said. “Why wouldn’t you want to park on Boston, walk to the arena, come back and have a drink or dinner?”
While downtown bars are also reaping the benefits of BOK Center traffic, certain events attract more of their brand of clientele to the area than others.
“Celine Dion doesn’t bring too much of an Arnie’s crowd in, but when events like AC/DC and Metallica are on, we definitely see a big difference,” said Arnie’s bartender Christina Snow, noting she also sees a higher number of out-of-town guests in the bar on event nights.
When the BOK Center is hosting an event that appeals to the Arnie’s customer, Arnie’s co-owner JoAnn Armstrong said business can jump as much as 15 percent after the show.
“Shows that bring ‘our’ customer to the Brady District are so important to our livelihood,” said Lola Palazzo, owner of Lola’s at the Bowery. “Slipknot, on the other hand, is not.”
“Sometimes we feel we are just a little to far away from the BOK for a positive impact,” she said. “It’s The Brady and Cain’s we love to see open and featuring a show that brings a customer who wants to begin the evening with an out-of-the-way, owner-operated drink and eatery that’s casually elegant – ‘a bar with a woman’s touch,’ someone commented recently.”
Downtown-area eateries and bars aren’t the only ones seeing new faces since the BOK Center opened. Though Palazzo felt her bar, barely a half-mile from the BOK Center, was too far away to feel any impact from event-goer traffic, business has gotten a boost two miles south at Kilkenny’s, Cherry Street’s Irish pub.
“I attribute part of it to the BOK, for sure,” said night manager Jeff Underwood, citing an upward trend in sales that began before the arena opened. On nights when all roads point to Second and Denver, Underwood staffs for crowds 20 percent larger than those that come for dinner on non-event nights.
“In December, there was a lot going on down there,” he said of the month the BOK Center pulled in 54 events, the most in its short history, “and we were incredibly busy in December.”
The radius of benefit may extend as far south to 51st and Harvard, where Bodean Seafood Restaurant serves up a large menu of seafood flown into Tulsa twice daily. Owner Taurus Faulkner has seen a blip in his business that might have something to do with BOK Center events. Even so, it’s hard to say for sure.
“It’s been beneficial,” he said of the BOK Center opening. “There’s an increase in business – maybe 5 percent – and it starts a little earlier.”
Event goers come downtown hungry, but what’s to do if dinner ends early? According to Mary Beth Babcock’s latest sales figures at Dwelling Spaces, 119 S. Detroit Ave., the crowds are doing more than just killing time.
“When people who may not normally come downtown to eat before they go to the shows and find they have a little extra time before it gets started, they spill over to my store and say, ‘Oh, wow, I didn’t even know this was here.’”
Sales at Babcock’s boutique are 20 percent better on nights when the BOK Center features a big event.
To keep up with the synergy, Babcock looks to downtown landlords to “let retailers know that there is space available for them to rent, and it has to be priced reasonably for someone like a small business entrepreneur. More retail could only help my business and other retailers downtown.”
Its benefits to the local economy all told, the completion date of the BOK Center won’t exactly make the hall of fame for best-timed openings. The economy that was booming at the arena groundbreaking tanked as the first events tested the both the facility and Tulsans’ capacity to pay premium prices for A-list events.
“On one hand you have people with interest in doing projects downtown – building restaurants and other entertainment options – and on the other is difficulty getting financing for those things,” Stewart said. “Our challenge and opportunity is to find ways to help finance or incentivize those people to go ahead and get their projects started.”
On the edge of the IDL, Jerry Lyon at Lyon’s Indian Store, 401 E. 11th St., hasn’t seen an increase in traffic through his store when a concert is on at the BOK, “but, it’s changing people’s attitudes about coming downtown so that it’s not such a big ordeal to come here, to drive on the streets downtown and all the things people used to use as excuses for not coming down here.
“Now they say, ‘The BOK Center is downtown, and we kind of know our way around and how to get in and out.’ So, we’re seeing a little less resistance to coming downtown.”
Lyon closes shop at half past five each evening, and while he doesn’t look to keep his shop open later, he looks to see more out-of-town visitors milling through his store.
“People come from out of town and spend the night, and they get in early in the afternoon and come in shopping. It’s drawing people to stay at the hotels – people who make more of a trip out of it and stay over a day.”
“We’ve got more people coming downtown than we’ve ever had,” Stewart said. “The key is to capture them.”