Art of Community Building: Medicine Park

This case study is part of a series investigating the variety of ways that Oklahoma communities invest municipal resources and funding in the arts. These stories illustrate how these investments, big or small, can have a positive impact on citizens, civic pride, tourism, and the general well being of a place.

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Medicine Park (pop. 415) is located in southwestern Oklahoma.

Community Profile
City BudgetNA

2014 Census Data
Population: 415
Median household income: $43,451
Persons in poverty: 25%
High School graduate or higher (age 25+): 94.6%
Bachelor’s degree or higher (age 25+): 23.5%

From Local Arts Index
State Arts Agency Grants per county capita (2003-2009): $7.08
Total nonprofit arts organizations per 100,000 county population (2012): 9.48

Links:
Medicine Park info: www.medicinepark.com
Medicine Park Art Walk: www.facebook.com/MedicineParkArtWalk
Medicine Park Events: www.facebook.com/Medicine-Park-Events-192185680808519/
Medicine Park Blog: http://medicineparkblog.blogspot.com/
Medicine Park Aquarium & Natural Sciences Center: www.mpmns.org

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Medicine Park postcard, 1930s.

When describing the cobblestone community of Medicine Park in southwest Oklahoma, residents and tourists alike use words like “magical,” “healing,” and “beautiful.” The community was founded in 1908 by Oklahoma Senator Elmer Thomas as the state’s first planned tourism resort. Taking advantage of the natural beauty at the gateway of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge (established 1901), the resort began simply with a large Army tent with a wood floor, a swimming hole, and a limited number of campsites.

In the first few years many improvements were made including inns, tennis courts, a spa, dance hall, petting zoo, general store, café, and more. Tourists began to flock to the resort, attracted by the Native American belief in the healing powers of the waters of Medicine Creek, and the rounded cobblestones (a natural resource unique to the area) used to construct nearly all early structures.

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Welcome to Medicine Park!

Though the resort saw a downturn during the Great Depression, it has remained a tourist destination and the turn of the 21st century saw a great revitalization, with art and culture as a major component. Recognizing that tourism is still the main industry for Medicine Park, residents and city officials have worked together to elevate the destination to include art, music, family-friendly activities, wellness, history, and Native American traditions.

Much of the recent growth in tourism is generated by the efforts of the Medicine Park Economic Development Authority (MPEDA), a volunteer-run trust authority that works to preserve the integrity of the historical town and the land, and to generate revenue through sales tax production. The authority began with a small business loan program, funded through the Association of South Central Oklahoma Governments (ASCOG), which helps small businesses get started in Medicine Park. Repayments of the loans regenerate the fund, in turn supporting more businesses for the town. Though MPEDA is not an official part of the local government, the township is highly supportive of the work they do by providing encouragement, cooperation, and resources.

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Medicine Park Flute Festival

MPEDA has identified art and culture as key tourism drivers, and has developed many regularly occurring events highlighting the arts. One growing example is the Medicine Park Art Walk, a juried arts festival. When it first began 8 years ago, the festival featured 13 artists. In 2017, they plan to host 75. Beyond the $50 booth fee which supports scholarships for students studying art or biology, the festival takes no commission on art sales, hoping to provide a venue for artists to support their careers. The Art Walk also coincides with the annual Flute Festival, celebrating Native American flute players. The Township of Medicine Park supports these events with full cooperation on permitting, road closures, and other event production support. The town typically hosts over 1,000 visitors during the weekend of festivities.

Other Medicine Park events include music festivals such as the Red Dirt Ball, Rockin’ in the Park, Disco Ball, and Blues Ball. Many of these events were spearheaded by former Mayor Dwight Cope, who was determined to bring music to Medicine Park. For his efforts he was recognized with a Governor’s Arts Award in 2009. As a music appreciation teacher, he knew that Medicine Park and music made a perfect combination.

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Medicine Park Art Walk

“Medicine Park is a special place and I’ve said that a lot of times before,” Cope said in a 2012 interview with KSWO Channel 7. “It’s got its own soul and its own vibe. People come here anyway, but the music is just that much more of a reason to be here.” Though no longer mayor, Cope continues his service as Trustee & Human Resources Liaison for the township, and volunteers as Events Coordinator for MPEDA.

With a solid roster of events bringing tourists year-round, MPEDA is now looking to the future. After several years of planning, the Medicine Park Aquarium & Natural Sciences Center is set to open later this year. MPEDA is also working on plans for the addition of a lodging tax in Medicine Park, which would help fund future economic development and tourism initiatives.

Through the committed involvement of volunteers, Medicine Park has managed to grow resources by celebrating local talent and preserving the beauty of their surroundings. Their economy is built on the authenticity of the place, and is made more sustainable by showcasing art, culture, nature, and history.