Trend: Oklahoma state parks face uncertainty as funds decrease, cities turn to privatization

By Sierra Rains-Moad

Matthew Mears has watched his small town grow and flourish around the reddish brown sandstone of Red Rock Canyon for years.

The children of Hinton, Oklahoma learn to swim at the canyon’s pool, families take the day off to enjoy the natural beauty in their backyards and the town’s economy runs heavily off the revenue visitors bring in, said Mears, who serves as the town administrator.

“Everyday you go down there during the summer it is packed full of campers– it’s pretty much at it’s limit everyday throughout the summer,” Mears said. “It draws a huge crowd to the town.”

But the quality of life and sales tax revenue the park brings to the small town, just an hour away from Oklahoma City, is under threat as the park has continuously made the “short list” of state parks slated to be shut down, Mears said. 

Red Rock Canyon is not alone. An increasing number of Oklahoma state parks are making this list as the state budget decreases, leaving several parks with either the option of ceasing operations or becoming privately owned. 

Increase in demand, decrease in supply 

With a remaining 62,000 acres of natural resources to explore, the number of state park visitors has continued to increase by 7.5 percent since 2014, reaching a total of around 9.7 million visitors in 2017, said Leslie Blair, public information officer for the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department.

“Tourism is a big driver for the economy of Oklahoma,” Blair said. “We’re the state’s third largest industry, which brings over $8 billion to the state each year. State parks aren’t all of that, but they are part of that.”

In 2017, state parks brought in around $22.5 million, and an additional $23.3 million from sales by nearby businesses, Blair said. 

However, Blair said the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department has taken “significant hits” to its budget for several years, leaving the department to operate with nearly 45 percent less state legislatively appropriated funding.

Of the department’s $80.9 million budget, state parks receive around 76 percent, Blair said.

In March 2017, the Oklahoma legislature asked state agencies to consider the impact a worst-case-scenario budget reduction of 15 percent might have on their services; and the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department feared this would cost the state around half of its 32 state parks.

Blair said the department faced a similar 10 percent cut in 2011 and, as a result, shed seven state parks.

However, because cuts to the department were not as drastic as imagined and due to a $1.4 million donation on behalf of the U.S. Department of Interior, the department was able to stabilize its budget for the first time this year.

But for some state parks like Red Rock Canyon, the damage had already been done.

The privatization experiment

Local businessman Rick Thiel spent most of his life growing up in Hinton, repelling down the red rock walls and cooling down in the pool. When Thiel heard that the park might be facing closure, he went to the Oklahoma Department of Tourism and Recreation with a business proposition.

Thiel wanted to run the park himself, but the only way he could do so is if the state leased it to the city, a county or a tribal affiliate, he said.

At this point, it seemed like the most logical decision as town administrator was to step in, Mears said. And because Thiel was a local resident, he had greater appeal than other private contractors might.

“As far as the town’s concerned, we don’t want to see it (the park) close so that’s one of the reasons we got involved, to make sure someone from town could be running it,” Mears said.

Upon reaching agreement with Mears and executive director of the state tourism department, Dick Dutton, in November 2018, the state leased Red Rock Canyon State Park to the town of Hinton, which then leased the park to Thiel’s company.

As a result, the park has shed its former title and become known as Red Rock Canyon Adventure Park.

When Red Rock Canyon was a state park it cost around $300 to operate it, but the park itself was only bringing in $160, Mears said.

“For the private company to make it work, they’re going to have to change something,” Mears said. “He’s going to run it more like a company instead of like a state park so it will actually break even or make money.”

Thiel said he wants to make several additions and improvements to the park, including the addition of a zip line, obstacle courses, concession stands, cafes and a dam which will increase the size of the pond.

It’s not unusual for struggling state parks to turn to private ownership as a means of preservation, Blair said. Five of the seven parks shuttered in 2011 are now operated by private contractors.

“It is to our understanding that local areas are still operating those very similar to how we had been operating them,” Blair said.

Conflicts in enterprise  

However, the arrangement with Red Rock Canyon did not come without opposition.

David Sutton served as park manager for Red Rock Canyon from 1986 until retiring earlier this year and is concerned about how operation as a for-profit enterprise might affect the park, according to The Oklahoman.

One of Sutton’s fears that the change will lead to reduced hours and access has already become a reality, Mears said. The park will now be closed at dusk, so that only paying campers may come in and out.

Whether it’s small or substantial changes, other Oklahoma state parks have faced great disappointment in promises of privatization.

In 2008, the state sold 750 acres of Lake Texoma State Park to a private development firm, which agreed to add condos, hotels, golf courses, restaurants, swimming pools, a gym, and other amenities to the park, but 10 years later the land remains nothing but an unkempt space of weeds and trees.

If Thiel’s company fails, Red Rock Canyon Adventure park will return to the ownership of either the city or the state, Mears said.

However, failure would mean a great amount of uncertainty for the park, a loss of revenue for the town of Hinton and an even greater hole in the hearts of residents.

“To lose that, to lose that quality of life– it would be a huge loss if it shut down,” Mears said.

Human interest: OU employee shares struggle with breast cancer as number of young women diagnosed increases

By Sierra Rains-Moad

Chelsee Lewis Wilson was in a meeting with her coworkers at the OU K20 Research Center when her phone rang — she was expecting a call, but it was a full day early.

Wilson left the meeting with a sense of urgency and called back. Her doctor picked up.

“‘We got your results back and you have breast cancer,’” Wilson remembers her doctor saying.

Wilson was in shock and envisioned the diagnosis as a death sentence.

“I thought, ‘I’m going to die at 29’,” Wilson said.

Wilson is one of around 250,000 women who have been unexpectedly diagnosed with breast cancer at a young age. Every October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, an international health campaign organized by major breast cancer charities reminds individuals of the disease that affects 1 in 8 U.S. women.

Yet, many young women remain unaware they can be at risk for developing breast cancer as early as their 20s, OU Breast Health Network radiologist Elizabeth Jett said.

Most women do not get screened for breast cancer until they are in their 40s, Jett said, and in most cases young women have been advised to wait. However, the number of women contracting breast cancer in their late 20s and early 30s is increasing for unknown reasons, she said.

Physicians generally consider genetic risk factors and family history when looking for the cause of the disease, but an increasing amount of young women who are developing the condition in the U.S. have no family history of breast cancer, Jett said.

Jett said breast cancer can be particularly harmful to younger women because it not only derails many of their professional and life plans, but it is often more aggressive.

If breast cancer is not caught quickly in younger women it can be deadly because the cancer spreads throughout the individual’s lungs, brain and organs, Jett said.

“We go through our 20s and we kind of think we’re invincible and we’re going to live forever,” Jett said. “When all of the sudden you’re faced with the reality that that’s not necessarily true.”

Before she was diagnosed, Wilson said she didn’t even go to the doctor for a cold. Wilson was living a “pretty normal life,” working with schools across the state to help build interactive learning communities and, in October 2017, celebrating her first anniversary with her husband.

It was a coincidence that Wilson’s annual appointment with her physician was coming up in March 2018 when she first felt a lump in her breast while in the shower.

“I thought ‘OK, well I’ll just address it, it’s probably just a cyst,’” Wilson said.

Wilson said her doctor initially thought the lump was a cyst as well, but after conducting a mammogram and an ultrasound, her radiologist said she was concerned.

“The big problem we see so often in young women is they didn’t think they could have cancer — their health care provider says ‘Oh this is just a lump, a bump in your breast tissue,’” Jett said. “They tend to get blown off a little bit because people don’t think about breast cancer in women in their 20s.”

A biopsy was done and Wilson was sent home expecting to receive a phone call with the results in 48 hours.

Kristen Sublett, Wilson’s coworker at the K2O Research Center, was in a meeting with Wilson when the call came. Sublett and Wilson’s other coworkers had been witnesses to Wilson’s medical appointments for weeks.

No one would have ever expected Wilson would be diagnosed with breast cancer, Sublett said, but when Wilson left the meeting to take the call, her coworkers knew right away.

“She’s very, very young and healthy,” Sublett said. “It was just complete shock.”

After her coworkers learned of her diagnosis, Wilson’s husband was the next to know. Calling her husband and telling him “you need to leave work” is a part of that day Wilson said will forever be ingrained in her mind.

For many young women, the diagnosis of breast cancer can spell the end of a relationship, Jett said.

“For some people it derails their plans professionally, for other people it destroys relationships,” Jett said. “There’s a lot of women whose husbands have divorced them after they were diagnosed with cancer.”

It wasn’t easy, but Wilson said her husband was always there for support. “‘This is a crappy first year of marriage, so let’s just get through it,’” Wilson recalls her husband saying.

Wilson’s particular form of breast cancer, invasive ductal carcinoma, is one of the most common, but like many other young women, she is triple positive, meaning her breast cancer grows very aggressively and feeds off hormones like estrogen and progesterone.

Because her cancer was so advanced, Wilson said she had no option but to go right into chemo. This meant many long hours at her physician’s office every three weeks throughout summer 2018.

First would come the saline, then the anti-nausea meds, then the heartburn meds and then the Benadryl.

Wilson broke down in the waiting room before getting her first MRI. Only her coworkers and her husband knew of her diagnosis at this point because Wilson was holding off telling her family and friends.

“Telling someone that you have cancer really sucks,” Wilson said.

However, her doctor was able to calm her down and remind her that breast cancer is highly treatable. Wilson then gradually became more comfortable with sharing her story and began to notice how there were a lot of other 20-year-old women who had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Out of her newfound courage grew a strong support system of family, friends and colleagues.

“No one has given me a chance to feel sorry for myself and I think that’s part of what’s helped,” Wilson said. “No one goes ‘Oh, you have cancer’ and gives me sad eyes. They just treat me like normal.”

Sublett said she was impressed by the way Wilson carried herself at work following her diagnosis.

“She hasn’t let it keep her down,” Sublett said. “She’s done everything that she’s been able to do and she’s had a great attitude about it.”  

In the seven months Wilson has been enduring treatment, she has managed to keep traveling across the state to help schools with professional development. Even when she can’t make it into the office, she works from home, Sublett said.

Wilson was the first person Sublett has known to be diagnosed with breast cancer and as a young woman in her 30s, Sublett said she has become more conscious of her own health as a result.

“It did make me stop and think about ‘Is this something I’m paying attention to, is this something that I’m asking my doctor?’” Sublett said.

Wilson went through six rounds of chemo from May to October before her doctors found that the cancer appeared to be gone. But they wouldn’t know for sure unless the affected breast was removed.

Wilson had the option of keeping one of her breasts, but opted for a double mastectomy because the chances of the cancer returning were at 20 percent, which was not worth the risk to Wilson.

“I would take 20 percent odds if I was playing the lottery — a one in five chance is great,” Wilson said. “But a one in five chance for the breast cancer to come back and that I would have to fight this battle again is way too high for me.”

The idea of having both of her breasts removed and returning home the same day was a hard thought to grapple with, Wilson said, but on Oct. 18, Wilson had the procedure done.

It took more than half a year to get to this point and put a heavy strain on her personal life, but Wilson said she is excited for her battle to finally be over and has obtained a different outlook on life as a result of her experience.

“It sucks, but I would rather fight it now and get it over with than 30 years down the road,” Wilson said. “This is a low point so life just gets better from here and it kind of makes life more enjoyable, which is a very strange thing. I’m just a lot more grateful and it takes a lot to come to that realization, but we get there.”

Story behind the story: Meg Wingerter

As a young aspiring writer, Meg Wingerter got a thrill out of being able to ask her high school administrators questions behind the platform of journalism.

“There was something that was very intoxicating about how when I said I was from the paper I could ask administrators questions about why they were doing what they were doing,” Wingerter said.

Wingerter had known she liked writing for most of her life and wanted to find a way to be paid for it. Today, Wingerter makes a living covering health for The Oklahoman.

Before joining the team at The Oklahoman in July 2017, Wingerter spent several years at various publications across the nation. One of her first internships at a small publication local to Lake Michigan, the Muskegon Chronicle, began in 2010 and was the source of much of her knowledge today.

“During my intern days, getting over the fear of just calling people or just grabbing the man on the street– I was a pretty shy person so I had to get over that fairly quickly and get into the mindset of ‘not everyone’s going to like you and sometimes that’s a sign that you’re doing your job right’,” Wingerter said.

The Muskegon Chronicle eventually brought Wingerter on as a general assignment reporter, but after two years with the publication Wingerter knew it was time to move on. From there, Wingerter experimented with business writing at a publication in Kansas and stumbled upon her love for the health beat.

The Topeka Capital-Journal had never had a health reporter before, but Wingerter incorporated the topic with business in a new way. So when a position for a health reporter at The Oklahoman opened up, Wingerter thought it might be a good fit; and now she is the go-to person for health-related stories in the metro area.

This reputation lead a 60-year-old story to fall into her lap in September 2018.

Jim Carrier, a freelance journalist who was researching the history of a chronic, inflammatory bowel disease known as ulcerative colitis, was trying to find out what had happened to three patients who had undergone lobotomies as treatment.

Five patients were involved in the 1950s study conducted by the University of Oklahoma School of Medicine, whereas two of the male patients died within a year of treatment, but the other three female patients’ stories were still shrouded in mystery.

Carrier had reached out to Wingerter in hopes that she could help.

“We didn’t know what happened to them. I interviewed him and did some research on that and I gave OU med school the chance to comment, but it wasn’t something they were real eager to talk about,” Wingerter said. “I understand given how far in the past it was, but lobotomies weren’t a shining moment of medical history.”

The biggest problem Wingerter said she encountered with the story was the question of “Why run a story from the 1950s?” After publishing the story, Wingerter said some public relations professionals reached out, asking the same question.

“It’s not necessarily the light they want things to be seen in,” Wingerter said.

But that gave more significance to the story.

“I think it’s always important when there was wrong doing to people that was never addressed, even in this case where it was not intentional wrongdoing,” Wingerter said. “In a sense of righting the historical record and saying that these people mattered and they didn’t have a voice in that moment.”

Wingerter said working on this story reminded her that journalists’ track record of deciding whose voice matters has not always been perfect. Journalists need to have more humility in making judgments about others, Wingerter said.

The patients in the article, for example, were dismissed as being hysterical at the time. 

An essential element to the impact of Wingerter’s point in her piece on ignorant medicine is the emotion she is able to capture in her writing. The article ends with a subsection titled ‘We owe you an apology,’ in which it is revealed that the source is a victim of ignorant medicine himself.

Wingerter describes the anger in her source’s voice, even when he is trying to speak kindly of his doctors– a skill she said she has learned to hone over the years.

“You have to tune in, particularly in a story where you know emotion is going to be important,” Wingerter said. “It’s something that overtime you get attuned to and discover what has worked in other stories, what you need to be listening for and what’s going to connect with people.”

Though the story clearly has emotional impact, Wingerter said she has not had anyone who recognizes the people involved contact her yet, although she would love for that to happen.

A 60-year-old story might seem like a stretch for some editors, Wingerter said, but everyone has their own idea of what good journalism should be and sometimes you just have to take something and run with it.

Editors will also always have their individual preferences in writing styles, Wingerter said.

“Some editors, they want everything strictly inverted pyramid and some of them really want it narrative, setting scenes and some love the data, some want to see you schmoozing, getting the behind the scenes stuff,” Wingerter said.

But the key is to draw from everything you learn and develop your own unique style, Wingerter said.

“There’s a place for all of those things,” Wingerter said. “You can’t say that one is better than the other, so I encourage anybody who is getting started to take all of the feedback they can give you and use it to make yourself better, but not to think that there’s any one thing that you have to be.”

Profile: From Los Angeles to Oklahoma, two OU alumni build a vision together

By Sierra Rains-Moad

The weather may be overcast and gloomy, but when customers step into The Social Club, it’s as if a 70 degree ocean breeze is blowing across their skin and warm rays of sun are beaming down on their face.

Maybe it’s the glowing ambiance of bright colors and bright lights, or maybe it’s the plethora of trendy handmade treasures, but visitors may feel like they’re “not in Oklahoma anymore” because of the Los Angeles energy co-owners and longtime friends Dana Scott and Erica Smith incorporate into their business.

The Social Club, located off of 210 E. Main St., functions as both a salon and a shop full of handmade goods crafted by many local and regional merchants. Several of the items in the shop are centered around the idea of social gatherings or gift giving and include candles, prints, postcards, jewelry and more.

Guests are offered locally brewed coffee and other refreshments, as well as many small, but detailed things like a hot towel in the salon to make them feel more relaxed and at home.

Dan Schemm, executive director of Visit Norman and chair of the Norman Downtowners Association, said The Social Club, like many other businesses along Main Street, has played a part in the revitalization of downtown Norman.

“The Social Club is a great neighbor, they’ve been participants in the art walks and supporters of all of the events– they really add a lot with not only the salon portion, but also the retail portion of the store,” Schemm said.

The Social Club resides at the center of many festivals held in downtown Norman. Scott said The Social Club serves snacks and cocktails on each 2nd Friday Norman Art Walk, while also supporting and featuring regional artists by displaying their work.

“It’s fun to have our shop be a part of town that is doing things on a regular basis and helps draw people in,” Scott said. “We still get customers that come in every second Friday that have never been in before or didn’t even know we existed.”

Building a vision together

Scott and Smith spent a good amount of their lives growing up in Oklahoma. As undergraduate students at the University of Oklahoma, the two spent many late nights talking of what their futures might be like.

“I would always say that Erica has been my dreamer friend,” Scott said.

Time passed by and Smith graduated in 2006 with a degree in political science. Scott graduated the same year with a degree in public relations.

Following the conclusion of their collegiate careers, their once entangled lives separated as they found themselves in far away places like New York and Los Angeles– until finally, fate brought them back together again.

“In a lot of ways, if I look back on the years leading up to this actually happening it makes sense that this is where we are now,” Scott said.

When Scott moved back to Oklahoma, she began pursuing jewelry making and event planning on the side from her full time job. It wasn’t until Smith came to her with a unique proposition that Scott decided to pursue her passions full time.

While Scott was assessing her own passions out of college, Smith was working at Lollie’s Beauty Bar in Norman. But in 2011, Smith decided it was time to take a leap of faith and branch out on her own. Only, she didn’t want to do it without her fellow dreamer.

“When I was kind of branching out on my own I was like ‘Dana, would you want to be a part of this with me?’– not knowing what we were doing at all,” Smith said.

By January of 2012, Scott and Smith were the official owners of a small, 500 square foot boutique and salon. Only a year later, their business expanded into a 2600 square foot space in downtown Norman.

With everything moving forward so fast, Smith said it “was a big bite” and a bit daunting at first. But even in the hard times Scott and Smith said it’s their friendship that has kept them going and that has brought out the best of both worlds in their joint business.

More than just business partners

Their two “yin and yang like” personalities work together to create a unique atmosphere and experience for every guest that walks through their doors.

“Dana is an amazing party planner, that’s just a huge gift she has. She can make an experience out of something really simple,” Smith said.

Scott said her favorite part of running the shop is being able to give guests a personal experience beyond what they would get at a superstore. Scott makes many of the items at The Social Club herself and even those items which she doesn’t make have their own unique backstory to share with customers.

“I just like to think about ‘What are the things that I would like to be given?’ and try and create them,” Scott said. “I think that makes buying a gift or putting something in your own home even more special when you know the story behind it.”

Both Smith and Scott work in the salon, where they have shared many special moments with clients for years. To Smith, her field of work serves a purpose far beyond just styling people’s hair.

“When you’re a hair stylist, you’re a part of people’s lives,” Smith said. “I’ve had some clients I’ve done for 13 years. You’re a part of these people’s world every four to eight weeks so you’re living in the ups and downs and all arounds of life with them.”

But it’s not always easy being the owners of a local business. Some nights are spent filing paperwork for hours upon hours and when something goes wrong, Scott and Smith are the ones who have to make sure everything is alright by the end of the day.

“We really are a small business, we do everything,” Scott said. “We have to wear so many hats, and some of the hats we’re really good at and some of the hats we’re terrible at– we look horrible in them.”

Even in those long nights and difficult times, Scott and Smith push each other to be better.

“I think that’s what’s so hard about owning a business is when you don’t have any support to keep going, so I think we’ve been able to be each other’s support in times where it’s like ‘This is so hard’,” Smith said.

Sharing personal connections

In the five years The Social Club has spent nestled between two buildings off of Main Street, downtown Norman has grown into one of the three major centers of entertainment, Schemm said.

“Back in the mid to late 90s and early 2000s, when I was in school, there were only a hand full of places, at best, downtown. There weren’t a lot of reasons to come downtown,” Schemm said. “Now, if people are thinking about ‘Where should we go eat dinner tonight, what should we go do?’ downtown is one of the places that is top of mind.”

Scott said The Social Club has caught the eye of many people along the road and something about the shop’s unique aesthetic keeps customers coming back.

Scott said she has many fond memories of interactions with customers.

Once, a couple road tripping through Oklahoma was trying to decide whether they were going to stay in Norman for the night and when they came into the boutique the next day, they said they decided to stay based on their desire to see the shop, Scott said. 

The couple then shopped and chatted with Scott for several hours.

“That is like the greatest compliment you can ever get,” Scott said.

It is those experiences and connections Scott and Smith make through their business that truly bring their vision of a “social club” alive.

“It’s just fun to be like ‘We got to be a part of your life for a little bit’,” Smith said.

Q&A: Jeri Sieber: ‘They completely cut off the entire world from us’

After more than a year of orange cones and torn up gravel, the reopening of Lindsey Street has alleviated many problems in the area, but left a lingering sense of desolation in some local business owners.

Jeri Sieber became the face of Classic 50’s Drive-In only shortly before the mile-long  construction project began. As part of a long time family-run business, Sieber is familiar with many other local businesses on Lindsey Street and considers them family. As she took on her new role as a business owner, Sieber found herself among those facing unimaginable challenges throughout the construction process.

Although the demolition of the street is over now, Sieber speaks for several business owners along the route when she says the destruction of her business is a wound she is still trying to recover from.

Sierra Rains: Do you remember when the construction first began and what your reaction to it was?

Jeri Sieber: My family has owned Classic 50’s for 60 years. I bought it in September of 2015, so I bought my whole family out. I had been overseas, I had come back and had worked for a while and my uncle who was running it decided he wanted to retire because my grandfather had died. So I decided ‘I’ll go ahead and buy my family out because I don’t want it to close.’ It’s a family tradition.

I had absolutely no idea. I was thinking that we were going to have construction, they were going to widen the road. It never in a million years occurred to me that it would be like this. It took almost two years just to widen one mile. I was absolutely floored when I found out what they were doing and how long they were planning on taking.

SR: What was one of your biggest struggles during the construction process?

JS: At one point they had Lindsey shut down to two lanes, they had I-35 shut down and they had the Lindsey Street bridge shut down at Lindsey and Berry. They pretty much isolated us on an island to where, unless you knew Norman back streets inside and out, you couldn’t even get down Lindsey Street. They completely cut off the entire world from us. I’ve never seen anything like that anywhere I’ve lived.

SR: How much did your sales drop during that time period?

JS: My sales dropped 50 percent.

SR: Have your sales gone back up at all since the construction has ended?

JS: My sales have gone back up. They are slowly climbing back up and getting to where I need them. I don’t really know what to expect because I bought it, I did a lot of renovations, I kind of revamped it. I don’t know if I’m supposed to get an increase in business because of all of the changes to Lindsey Street, but at this point, all I want to do is get my business back to where it was the year that I bought it. If I could just make as much money in a year as I did in 2015, before all of this started– I’m just trying to get back to where it was when I bought it.

SR: What do you think it would take to get your business back to where it was when you bought it?

JS: Even with it opening up and a surge in our business, we’ll still probably be $150,000 off this year from where we were the year before construction began. That is great considering last year, where I lost $450,000. I am okay with that. I am slowly but surely building our business up and it’s just really important that we get the word out, so people know they can come down Lindsey Street. I feel like half the town doesn’t even know we’re open yet. They’ve gotten so used to avoiding it for so long that they still avoid it. I’m still working on getting everyone on the same page, saying ‘Hey we’re still here, we survived, come visit us’.

SR: So, in the long run, do you think the construction on Lindsey Street was worth it?

JS: I’m really happy with the construction, I’m glad they did it. Do I think they needed to take almost years to do it? No, I don’t. I mean I look at other projects in other states and I’m just saddened. I mean they built an entire bridge across a lake in Dallas within half the time that they took to build this mile long corridor.

Over 50 percent of the Lindsey Street businesses went out of business. Some of them are corporate stores, but some of them are like mom and pop shops that my friends and families I’d known my whole life– I grew up with– own these stores and after 30 years they’re just like ‘Yeah we can’t survive this’. They either close their doors or they sell out. How do you put a price on that?