Shawnee Forward Business Alliance hosted a legislative luncheon Friday, where featured speaker Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell discussed his role to promote tourism throughout the state.

Shawnee Forward Business Alliance hosted a legislative luncheon Friday, where featured speaker Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell discussed his role to promote tourism throughout the state.

The way Pinnell plans to do that is to embrace the state's strengths.

One of the tools he said he intends to use is thrusting opportunity zones at investors all over the country.

A bill was passed a couple years ago that pushed an idea to create economic zones in the U.S.

“They were targeting economically depressed areas,” Pinnell said. “Because over the last 10 years most investment has been in about five states — really, mostly in New York and California,” he said.

Leaders realized an effort needed to be made to spread that more evenly across the nation.

Then-Gov. Mary Fallin and the Department of Commerce picked out more than 117 opportunity zones in Oklahoma, Pinnell said. Two of those zones are in Shawnee — the downtown district and along Interstate 40.

“Opportunity zones are where anybody has incurred capital gains can park that money into a profit … and not have to pay taxes,” he said. “You can leave it in there long enough you don't have to pay taxes on it at all.”

So, it's a really good real estate play, he said.

“People in California may not want to move to Oklahoma,” he said, “but they would love to invest money in Oklahoma.”

It's really tough for them to invest where they are because there's way too much competition, he said.

In the past month, Pinnell said ears have started perking up about these opportunity zones, because the Federal law and rule-making on this hadn't really firmed up until then.

“Now we're ready to start telling this story,” he said.

The mayors of Oklahoma City and Tulsa have had perspectives on this for about six months.

“I give them a lot of credit,” Pinnell said. “Oklahoma City was one of the more innovative cities in the country.”

“The state is aware those cities don't have the ability to go pitch for themselves,” Pinnell said, “and that's why the governor — when he announced me the Secretary of Tourism and branding — also named me bird dog of the opportunity zones.”

He said the zones are a tool in the toolbox and the state needs to make the most of them.

Pinnell said travelers and visitors are key to the state's growth.

“Tourism is the front door to economic development,” he said. “We have to get people off our roads and bridges into our communities — before they might want to relocate or retire here.”

He said when people do get to know this state, they fall in love with it — with how nice we are, how diverse, and that we have running water in tall buildings.

“They see it,” he said. “They can visibly see it and it changes everything.”

He said Oklahoma is the crossroads of America; there are multitudes driving through.

“There are 49 other states defining what Oklahoma is, because we haven't defined who we are,” he said. “We have no branding in Oklahoma.”

There are more than 700 employees in the tourism department, he said. Yet, compared to other states, Oklahoma's marketing dollars are a drop in the bucket.

“The money given to this department needs to be spent much more wisely and more targeted,” he said.

He said the spring campaign had a budget of $2.3 million.

“Really the only thing other states are seeing about our state are ads about tourism,” he said. “There really isn't any other campaign in the state that's projecting any sort of ad anywhere at all.”

He said Michigan spent $28 million a year.

Texas spends $41 million a year — $10 million of that internationally, he said.

“We have more drivable miles of the most famous road in the entire world,” Pinnell said.

Marketing research shows there is a movement in this country — and internationally — looking for an authentic American experience.

“They want to go back to what America used to look like, what the people used to be like,” he said. “We've got that in all 77 counties.”

Pinnell said tourism is the state's third market industry right now; the state generates about $650 million in state and local tax revenues off tourism.

“People come to Oklahoma every weekend, every week, using multiple languages, going up and down Route 66,” he said. “And a lot of that has nothing to do with what we do in the Department of Tourism. It's just the road is that famous.”

And the state also can boast unique access across all 77 counties that are organically driving business here, he said. Agri-tourism, the farmers markets and general farm-to-table movement, etc. are also natural elements of Oklahoma life that can easily be shared with travelers, he said.

“Just think if we actually marketed it,” he said.

Pinnell said Oklahomans have to stop running from their history and, instead, double-down on it.

“We shouldn't try to copy ourselves or try to turn ourselves into another state,” he said. “We should just be Oklahomans.”

There are a lot of important things about the state.

“What if we just focus on our strengths?”

Pinnell said he wants to get all the leaders from across the state together and make a master plan centered around Route 66 and other great qualities, like Native American culture.

He said his goal is to turn Oklahoma into a $1 billion tourism state.

Pinnell said anyone with a relevant skill set interested in becoming involved with the task force for marketing and branding the state should contact his office.

Visit the Oklahoma Secretary of Commerce and Tourism website at okcommerce.gov or call (405) 815-6552.