Tourism ‘front door’ to economic development, Yukon audience told

‘Best tool in toolbox’, Lt. Gov. Pinnell says at luncheon

Oklahoma Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell visits with Yukon Main Street officials after he spoke at a Jan. 13th Yukon Chamber of Commerce luncheon inside 10 West Main Events: From left, Yukon Main Street Board Member Shelli Selby (Yukon’s mayor), Pinnell, Yukon Main Street Director Vicki Davis, and Yukon Main Street Board Member Kay Casper. (Photo by Conrad Dudderar)

By Conrad Dudderar
Staff Writer

Tourism is the “front door” to economic development, a top state official recently advised a Yukon audience.

“Tourism is the best tool in our toolbox to recruit people to the State of Oklahoma,” said Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell, speaking at January’s monthly Yukon Chamber of Commerce membership luncheon. “You have to get people to Oklahoma first for them to see how amazing this state is.

“Unfortunately, you have some people in the other 49 states who have a negative perception of the State of Oklahoma. They think this is still the Dust Bowl. They think it’s flat. They think it’s ugly. They have no idea that it’s become a world-class state. And we have amazing quality of life across our 77 counties.”

Pinnell, who became Oklahoma’s 17th lieutenant governor in 2019, ran for office largely because he wanted to become Oklahoma’s tourism secretary. He wasn’t seeing the dedication to promoting all that Oklahoma has to offer.

“I believed that we needed someone overseeing the third-largest industry in the State of Oklahoma,” Pinnell told an audience of about 75 Yukon business and community leaders who attended the Jan. 13th luncheon. “And we didn’t have that. We didn’t have a stand-alone secretary of tourism.

“Now you do. You have for the last three years.”

Lt. Gov. Pinnell referred to positives that have come out of the COVID-19 crisis – notably an increase in tourism.

Oklahoma state parks – which remained open during the peak of the pandemic – have seen a significant increase in annual visitors from about 9.5 million to 12.5 million.

“During COVID, what we have seen is that ‘great American road trip’ is back,” Pinnell shared during his 40-minute talk inside 10 West Main Events. “Thank God it is back. I’ve been on an airplane recently. I don’t recommend it. But I do recommend that American road trip again. It’s back – and we’ve got the most famous American road right out that front door.”

Oklahoma has it all – wide-open spaces, natural beauty, friendly faces, buffaloes, Native Americans, the Chisholm Trail, and Route 66.

“There’s not another state that can match the heritage and the history of the State of Oklahoma,” Pinnell noted. “There’s truly not another state as colorful as Oklahoma.”

Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell discusses his vision for Oklahoma tourism during a 40-minute speech at a Jan. 13th Yukon Chamber of Commerce Luncheon inside 10 West Main Events. (Photo by Conrad Dudderar)


The Yukon luncheon speaker believes strongly in investing first in the “core strengths that we already have as a state.”

The State Department of Tourism launched several campaigns in recent years that Pinnell said have been “filling up” hotels and restaurants in Oklahoma.

* “OK Here We Go”: This initiative focuses on educating the public about the importance of “shopping local” because sales tax revenue is vital to communities across the state. Oklahoma is, arguably, the most sales tax-dependent state in the U.S. That’s because municipalities like Yukon rely predominantly on sales tax dollars to fund local government services – and many citizens don’t realize this. With $702,000 spent initially on “Travel OK” promotions and $17.3 million generated in projected lodging revenue, this campaign has had a 23:1 return on investment

* “Oklahoma Road Trip” video series: The Oklahoma Department of Tourism won a national YouTube award for these four- to five-minute, high-quality video clips shot across the state. Weekly episodes were released last year. With $199,000 spent and $6.2 million generated in projected lodging revenue, this campaign has had a 30:1 return on investment.

* “Oklahoma Fishing Trail”: Oklahoma has more man-made lakes than any other state. They are beautiful and clean – and quite diverse in species of fish, from world-class bass and croppy to trout and paddlefish. Fishing is a multi-billion-dollar industry, so Pinnell in 2020 created the “Grand Slam of Oklahoma Fishing” featuring professional angler Jimmy Houston. Oklahoma was a top-five state in new fishing licenses sold last year. With a $90,000 initial investment and $8.2 million generated in projected lodging revenue, this campaign has had a 90:1 return on investment.

* The “Mother Road” Route 66: Oklahoma has the most “drive-able” miles of Route 66 of any state – 400, crossing through 45 cities and towns. An effort is underway to make Oklahoma what Pinnell calls the “center of the world” when it comes to Route 66, attracting tourists nationally and internationally. Oklahoma’s Route 66 National Commission has been created to prepare for the 100th anniversary of the Mother Road, less than five years away. Roadside attractions and celebrations will be planned in all communities along the route – like Yukon.

With Oklahoma at the “crossroads of America”, the state’s newly renovated “welcome centers” are visited more than most other states. Frequently asked questions by visitors are:

  1. How do I get to the Pioneer Woman in Pawhuska?
  2. Am a going to see a tornado today?
  3. Where do I go see a buffalo?


Another key reason Pinnell sought to become Oklahoma’s lieutenant governor was to promote small business and entrepreneurship programs through the state Department of Commerce.

“Every state in this country is dealing with filling a skills gap and the ‘brain drain’. Oklahoma, for sure,” he said. “We train kids here, and unfortunately, a lot of them leave to go find jobs in other states.”

Pinnell knows firsthand the importance of helping small businesses and “home grown” entrepreneurs – of any age – across Oklahoma’s 77 counties. After all, his wife invented the shopping cart baby hammock. Interestingly, the shopping cart also was invented in Oklahoma.

Many aspiring entrepreneurs have great ideas – but need start-up funding to accelerate and incubate their businesses. The backbone and anchors of every community are small business owners, according to Pinnell.

“Kudos to every one of those business owners that are taking a risk – because it’s a risk to do this,” he said. “If we don’t give them every opportunity to be successful – an accelerator, and incubator – even just surrounding them with mentorship programs – then, guess what?

“A lot of times that means that business is not going to be successful, or they’re going to find an accelerator down in the Houston area where they’re going to be able to get start-up cash to start that business down there. And then, a lot of times, they never come home.”

More than 75% of venture capital investment is made in three states – California, New York and Massachusetts.

The Yukon luncheon speaker referred to billionaire investor Steve Case’s “Rise of the Rest” bus tour. The former AOL chief executive officer wants other large investors to realize there are just as many smart people and great ideas in the middle of the country.

“That’s good for Oklahoma,” Pinnell said. “That’s good news for our small business owners and our entrepreneurs. It’s another area I’m heavily involved in as your lieutenant governor. We want to fill up the state the right way … keeping our ‘homegrown talent’ here.”

“We’ve chosen to raise our families here, start businesses here, risk here. We should start with those businesses first and give them every opportunity to stay in Yukon – or wherever else in the State of Oklahoma they want to stay. That’s not going to continue unless we are aggressively pursuing entrepreneurs and giving them those opportunities to stay here.”