The Edmond Sun

March 18, 2013

AGAINST THE GRAIN: McAlester hearkens back to its boomtown status

William F. O'Brien
Special to The Sun

OKLA. CITY — In the early 1900s the presence of coal in the red soil of McAlester transformed that Southeastern Oklahoma community into a boom town, and people from across the world came there to work in the coal mines. At the time of Oklahoma Statehood in 1907 McAlester ranked only behind Oklahoma City in the size of its population.

Congressman Carl Albert of McAlester, who served as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives in the early 1970s, would write in his memoirs that McAlester had communities of Italians, Russians, Mexicans, Syrians and Bulgarians when he was growing up there. Albert detailed that the largest immigrant group in McAlester was the Italians, and he wrote of them and their cultural and culinary traditions with affection. Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times reporter and Oklahoma City native Anthony Shadid would write in his book “House of Stone” of how his ancestors had emigrated from Lebanon in the 1920s to the McAlester area to operate stores that sold goods to the miners and their families.

But when oil became the nation’s chief source of energy most of the mines closed, and McAlester is perhaps best known today as the home of the state’s maximum security prison where executions are conducted. But in recent years McAlester has made efforts to encourage economic development. That effort has been spearheaded by several civic groups there, including the MPower organization.

The executive director of that entity, Shari Cooper, has a master’s degree in urban planning from the University of Oklahoma, and previously had worked as an urban planner in London, England, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Oklahoma City. Cooper recently explained that her organization has begun to use social media as a way to promote McAlester and Pittsburg County as both a business site and a tourist destination.

Those efforts include a video that is on the MPower website that was made by Cooper Ross of Insight Visual Media  of Edmond that details how McAlester is home to a military installation and several plants that produce equipment used by the U.S. military. It also describes how McAlester is close to the urban areas of Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Dallas, and is connected to those cities with interstate highways and enjoys a low cost of living and a trained workforce. The video describes the waterways, including Lake Eufaula and woods that are located in the McAlester area,  and reports that McAlester is a vacation destination as well. Cooper reports that her company recently commissioned a study by a national marketing organization on how to obtain the best return on the tax revenues that are generated by the motel room tax that is imposed in McAlester. The Italians that Albert remembered with fondness have left a legacy of Italian restaurants and stores and an annual Italian festival in McAlester, and the report received by Mpower concluded that McAlester should  publicize them and other attractions in efforts to bring visitors to it. The report suggested that McAlester should  advertise in print and Internet publications in Dallas, Oklahoma City and Tulsa, as well as conventions held in places such as Fort Worth and New Orleans.   

Many communities create social media websites that allow visitors and residents to upload photos and stories to it, and it was suggested by the report’s authors that McAlester should create a similar site. Some communities in Oklahoma, including Ardmore, Edmond and Enid, have Convention and Visitors Bureaus that work to bring people in to tour their towns. The report also recommended that McAlester use 22 percent of the revenues generated by the motel room tax to create such an entity.

While McAlester may not become a boomtown again, it is possible that it will experience growth and economic development as a result of the work done by Mpower and other civic organizations located there.

WILLIAM F. O’BRIEN is an Oklahoma City attorney.