Quartz Mountain renovation brings back memories

There is a nice article by Jennie Melendez in eCapitol News, reporting a grand reopening and ribbon cutting ceremony to unveil the newly renovated Quartz Mountain State Park Lodge at Lone Wolf near Altus. Reading the article brought back warm memories of my days serving in the legislature. Legislative service is a privilege and learning opportunity that anyone who gets the chance will cherish the rest of their life. 

But Quartz Mountain is special for me. It is home to the Oklahoma Arts Institute at Quartz Mountain, which sponsors the Oklahoma Summer Arts Institute each summer. The Summer Arts Institute is an intensive, two-week academy in the literary, visual, and performing arts for Oklahoma’s most talented high school students. The students are selected through a statewide competitive audition process and all accepted students are able to attend through a full scholarship to the program. The Oklahoma Arts Institute recruits nationally renowned artists to come to Quartz Mountain and teach the youth.  

One day in the early 1980s, during the oil bust and worst economic downturn in Oklahoma in my lifetime — until last year’s pandemic — Betty Price, who was director of the Oklahoma Arts Council, asked me to meet Mary Frates, who was President of the Oklahoma Arts Institute. They wanted to meet with me because I was chairman of the House Appropriations and Budget Committee at the time. To clarify, the Oklahoma Arts Council is a state agency and the Oklahoma Arts Institute is a private, non-profit organization. Betty and Mary wanted a $2 million appropriation to refurbish and upgrade the facilities at Quartz Mountain State Park to be used for the Summer Arts institute. 

This is what I love about politics. At the time, the legislature was cutting state agency budgets and raising taxes. We were about as popular as a saddle sore. Appropriating money for improvements at a state park was just the kind of grist that excited the “pet projects” monitors in the daily press. It was a chore to defend spending money for the State Arts Council’s normal budget. As for me, I had zero artistic talent and about the same amount of interest in art. I’d never heard of the Summer Arts Institute. I couldn’t draw or paint. I couldn’t sing, dance, act, or mime. I played a mediocre trombone in the high school band, but I wasn’t fit to carry the instrument for the trombonists who would be selected for the Summer Arts Institute orchestra.        

But Betty and Mary perceived that I was the guy they had to go to for money for Quartz Mountain improvements. I can only imagine the discussions they must have had strategizing on how to approach this rural, non-artistic throwback from Pottawatomie County. But they were passionate and effective advocates. They explained how many of the kids came from rural or small town Oklahoma, and despite their superior talent, some had never had the opportunity to play in a band or orchestra. They explained the life changing experience it would be for a supremely talented Oklahoma youth to spend two weeks under the tutelage of the nation’s best writers, artists, and performers. And they explained the inadequate, dilapidated Quartz Mountain facilities.  

In those days, the legislature was not able to authorize bond issues so capital expenditures came from regular appropriations. Improbable as it may seem, we managed, in the depth of the oil bust, to appropriate $500,000 per year for four straight years for the Quartz Mountain State Park to improve facilities for the Summer Arts Institute. Betty Price, smart politician that she was, made sure some key legislators and I attended the Summer Arts Institute every summer to see Oklahoma’s best bearing down and developing their talent with world class teachers. It became something I looked forward to and enjoyed every year.   

Since then, the state parks have had their ups and downs. Some have fallen into disrepair and been sold. Ownership of Quartz Mountain was transferred to the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education, probably to maintain the Oklahoma Arts Institute. 

I don’t know the backstory on the 2020 session’s Senate Bill 1941 by Sen. Roger Thompson, R-Okemah, and Rep. Kevin Wallace, R-Wellston, giving the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department authority to reacquire Quartz Mountain State Park and issue millions in bonds for its repair and rehabilitation. I hope it’s half as good as mine. And I hope the project gives them as much pleasure to remember for the next few decades as I’ve had. 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

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