In late January, 16 people flew in from New York, California, Florida and Washington, D.C., for the mid-winter meeting of the national Arts Education Advisory Council.
They took a tour of downtown Tulsa with Ken Busby, executive director of the Arts & Humanities Council of Tulsa.
"And they were blown away," Busby said.
They marveled at the historic Art Deco architecture in the central business district and appreciated the gritty authenticity of the Blue Dome area.
But the revitalized Brady Arts District impressed them the most, with its vibrant art scene and the newly opened Hardesty Arts Center.
It's known, locally, as AHHA. And it certainly gave Busby's out-of-town guests an ah-ha moment about Tulsa.
"Rarely have I ever witnessed a space as magnificent, humbling and welcoming," said Alex Sarian, director of finance and new business for Lincoln Center Education at the famous Lincoln Center in New York.
"I wish every city, including New York City, boasted of more world-class cultural centers like the Hardesty Arts Center."
Tulsa can sometimes suffer a sort of inferiority complex, worried that its relatively small size can deprive residents of cultural opportunities that people enjoy in bigger cities like Dallas and St. Louis, much less on the East and West coasts.
It can take visitors to remind Tulsa that it has plenty to be proud of.
"The people of Tulsa should consider themselves incredibly lucky to have it," Sarian said. "It's truly worthy of national attention."
Of course, the AHHA isn't all that Tulsa is lucky to have.
Busby offers just a short list:
The Arkansas River and Riverside Drive, the Philbrook and Gilcrease museums, the Tulsa Symphony, Tulsa Opera, Tulsa Ballet, Oklahoma Aquarium, the Tulsa Zoo and the Tulsa Performing Arts Center.
"The arts," Busby said, "are truly driving a critically important aspect of our economy."
With construction starting this summer, a $300 million park will transform a stretch of Riverside into the Gathering Place, a massive complex of trails, gardens and playgrounds south of downtown.
Plans include splash fountains, reconstruction of the Pedestrian Bridge over the Arkansas River and a lodge to offer entertainment even in cold weather.
Funded largely by donations, especially from the George Kaiser Family Foundation, the park should open by 2017.
A few miles south of the Gathering Place on Riverside Drive, Tulsans and visitors also can expect to embrace the Parrothead lifestyle starting in 2015.
Muscogee (Creek) Nation officials will expand on their River Spirit Casino at 8330 Riverside Parkway with Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville brand, complete with a 483-room, 26-story hotel tower.
The tribe announced the $335 million project last March, and construction began in November.
The expansion will also include a spa, theater and several new restaurants, including Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville restaurant and casino and a "5 O'Clock Somewhere" bar.
"We enjoy a tremendous quality of life in Tulsa," Busby said. "And it just keeps getting better."
Michael Overall 918-581-8383