Renaissance under way in downtown Chickasha

By Mike Ray, Southwest Ledger Staff Write

 Downtown Chickasha is undergoing a renaissance led by the Economic Development Council and the Chickasha Industrial Authority, with assistance from Chickasha Today.
 Unlike many communities, the EDC has trained its sights on small businesses, not “big box” companies – and those efforts have been handsomely rewarded.
 The EDC “serves as the official economic development representative for the City of Chickasha,” Director Jim Cowan said. And Chickasha Today is a private partnership that was founded to buy old buildings, remodel them and attract tenants.
 The first of those new establishments arrived in the fall of 2019: Canadian River Brewing Co., 121 W. Chickasha Ave., and The Speak bar and lounge at 114 W. Chickasha Ave.
 Subsequently, Great Plains Land and Cattle Co. restored the former Chickasha Star newspaper building on Fourth Street with the help of a downtown grant from the EDC.
 Gail Bush invested a reported $258,000 to rehabilitate the Petroleum Building at Fourth Street and Chickasha Ave., and was compensated with an $86,000 EDC grant that offset some of the expenses.
 Similarly, a downtown grant was approved for development of Legendary Bicycles at 320 W. Chickasha Ave.
 The EDC has approved several other start-up grants, too, including 5th Street Unique Boutique and Rock Island Candy Company, both located inside The Production House at 111 N. Fifth Street; The Lily Bee, 1619 S. Fourth; Life in Bloom, 103 S. Fourth; Brink’s Downtown Boutique, 407 Chickasha Ave.; and Tammie’s Bling Women’s Boutique, 125 W. Chickasha Ave.
 Chickasha Today was reimbursed $80,620 for its role in the development of The Flower Shop Winery and Pizzeria at 117 W. Chickasha Ave., and $85,000 for its investment in the buildings at 101 and 103 W. Chickasha Ave. now occupied by Brandi’s Bar & Grill.
 Recently the city council approved a $100,000 reimbursement to Chickasha Today for its investment in the rehabilitation of property at 123/125 W. Chickasha Ave.
 “We’re starting to produce results people can point to,” said John Gorton, CEO of Chickasha’s First National Bank and Trust Co. “This is the first significant growth here in 50 years.”
 The improvements are financed in part from the city’s 8% hotel/motel tax and the balance that remained from a special seven thirty-seconds of one percent (7/32%) excise tax voters approved in 2011 for “economic development purposes” for a period of five years.
 Any project the EDC supports “has to create jobs and sales taxes,” Gorton said.
 A minimum requirement for funding from Chickasha Today is a 3-for-1 ratio of total project cost to grant funds utilized. Several projects have exceeded that minimum, records reflect. According to Cowan, Brandi’s Bar & Grill produced a ratio of $9.52:$1 and the Flower Shop Winery & Pizzeria ratio was $7.84:$1.
 Gorton’s bank has invested more than $11 million in Chickasha rehabilitation projects, buying property downtown to redevelop “and create activity” because “we care about this community,” he said. “We are the oldest bank in this city and in Grady County. We want these projects to be successful.”
 One of the bank’s investments was renovation of the Chickasha Hotel.
 “That building was a drug-infested crack house” that needed “extensive rehabilitation,” Cowan said.
 Today its 32 rooms house low-income individuals. “It’s meeting housing needs for people who likely couldn’t afford other places,” Gorton said. The bottom floor of the building is occupied by local law firms.
 The EDC has 14 members; the mayor and city manager are ex-officio members.
 “All we do is recommend” economic development projects, Cowan said. The city council is the final arbiter. Every project the EDC recommends is voted on twice by the city council: first, to approve a grant, and then to approve the payments.
 The City of Chickasha collects the receipts from the hotel/motel tax, retains 10% as an administrative fee and sends the other 90% to the Chickasha Industrial Authority. The CIA “decides what to do with those funds” and appropriates some of it to the Chickasha Economic Development Council. “We have a one-year contract with the CIA to perform economic development services,” Cowan said.
 The EDC’s latest appropriation from the CIA was approximately $372,000, Cowan said. Part of the funds are used for the annual Festival of Light Christmas exhibition and for special events at the fairgrounds.
 Cowan, director of the EDC since 2020, prepares a budget each year which he presents to the EDC board and the CIA, “and then I come back with a work plan that’s tied into the contract.”
 The EDC’s agendas are posted in advance, their meetings are open to the public “and often we’ll have 20 guests,” Cowan said. “Also, we are audited,” he said. “Our process is transparent.”
 The one thing the EDC won’t reveal publicly is the name of a company or developer “we’re negotiating with,” Cowan said. “We don’t want to lose a major developer” because of premature announcements before all of the critical details have been nailed down. “We have to be protective of who we’re talking to.”
 In fact, the EDC is more transparent that it is legally required to be, Cowan said.
 In a 1987 opinion, the Oklahoma Attorney General’s office wrote that a “public body” does not include private organizations that contract to provide goods or services to the public on behalf of a governmental agency and receive payment from public funds merely as reimbursement for goods or services provided.
 Besides the economic development projects it endorses, the EDC provides city officials with valuable data about tourism. The EDC has “Placer” location and foot traffic data software that tracks cell phones. “We can tell how many people come to the Festival of Light,” for example, Cowan said.
 The EDC counted almost 465,000 out-of-town visits to Chickasha last year, he said: to the fairgrounds, the sports complex, and the holiday Festival of Light, but not the annual air show, the quilt tour, nor the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma.
 In January “we counted more than 70,000 people who visited downtown Chickasha,” he said. “That did not include employees,” he added. “It was a 23% increase over the previous year – and the leg lamp statue was a major attraction.”
 The iconic replica “leg lamp” from the 1983 film “A Christmas Story” was installed Nov. 5 in a downtown park and apparently is generating interest far and wide.
 “This leg lamp is a big deal. People are coming here from all across the country,” Mark Trammell told the Chickasha City Council during a December meeting.
 The 50-foot-tall statue is located adjacent to the Rock Island train depot downtown.
 The statue is a perfect copy of the lamp in the film: a long, slender leg in fishnet stocking and black high heel, supporting a lampshade trimmed in fringe and standing atop a wooden crate imprinted with the word “Fragile.”
 The 40-foot-tall lamp stands atop a 10-foot-tall crate and was constructed out of fiberglass by Mid-west Cooling Towers.