A Tiny Town Was Dying, but Reba McEntire Came to the Rescue

Author: Yuvi March 20, 2023 A Tiny Town Was Dying, but Reba McEntire Came to the Rescue

ATOKA, Okla. — Year after year, eight million vehicles drive through this sleepy town just off US Highway 75, which stretches from Texas to Canada. Almost none of them stopped.

Atoka had fallen on hard times: Residents had moved away, and downtown buildings were decaying. Carol Ervin, its economic development director, began to plot how the city might lure even a small fraction of those drive-by travelers to visit.

In the past two months, half a million guests have come to this southeastern Oklahoma community of 3,000. The reason can be summed up in four letters: Reba.

Reba McEntire, the country-music star, grew up in Atoka County, and in January, she made good on a pivotal investment here. In a once-dilapidated former Masonic temple, she opened a restaurant, Reba’s Place — a 50-50 partnership with the Choctaw Nation, whose reservation includes Atoka. Upstairs is a gift shop selling Reba shot glasses and her clothing line for Dillard’s. Front and center is a concert stage, where Ms. McEntire headlined the grand opening with a performance of her greatest hits.

In coming years, if all goes according to plan, Atoka will get an airport, a small water park, an amphitheater and boutique hotels. Several manufacturing and green energy companies are already setting up headquarters here.

No one was more skeptical than Ms. McEntire when Ms. Ervin and her team broached the idea of ​​a restaurant as a means of reigniting the local economy.

“I thought it was a pipe dream,” the singer said over the phone from her home in Nashville as she prepared to kick off her 2023 nationwide tour. Yet “you’ve got to dream big to make it big.”

Call it a convenient convergence: a music superstar, a well-resourced tribal nation, a heavily trafficked highway and an ambitious local government. “I put my money in on them,” Ms. McEntire said, “and they made things happen that I never thought could have happened.”

The project is not so far-fetched in Oklahoma, which has a number of other celebrity-fronted businesses. In Pawhuska, where the Osage Nation is headquartered, the Pioneer Woman Mercantile, a restaurant opened seven years ago by the Food Network star Ree Drummond, draws about 6,000 guests a day. The country singers Blake Shelton and Toby Keith own bars within a two-hour drive of Atoka.

But Ms. McEntire, 67, is arguably a bigger attraction than the others, with a 47-year career and 24 No. 1 hits on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. She has starred in films, Broadway musicals and several TV series, including her own hit sitcom, “Reba.”

On a Saturday afternoon this month, that star power was on display in downtown Atoka. Crowds of McEntire fans — many of them dressed in glittery tops and tasseled jackets to mimic her signature style — lined up outside a stolid three-story brick building whose only trace of glitz was a tall red electric sign reading “Reba’s Place.” The waiting time for a table was four hours.

Inside was a shrine to the singer. Under a soaring ceiling, diners packed into booths made from old church pews and gazed at posters showcasing Ms. McEntire’s albums, movies and shows, which have traded on her friendly, just-plain-folks image.

“Reba is about faith, she is about family, she is about culture,” said Gary Batton, the chief of the Choctaw Nation, the third-largest tribe in the United States. He knew Ms. McEntire from her performances in Choctaw casinos, and jumped at the chance to partner with her again.

Diners lucky enough to snag a table dug into slabs of chicken-fried steak slathered in a pleasantly sweet gravy, and pinto beans served with a towering wedge of cornbread — Southern foods that reflect Ms. McEntire’s life and career. They ogled the bedazzled red dress the singer wore on her 1995 tour, one of several outfits on display. Onstage, a local musician, Wyatt Justice, crooned country songs next to a wall-size American flag.

“I saw the big sign and then kind of slowed down,” said Donita Clay, who had driven about 90 miles from Broken Bow, Okla. “I am a Reba fan. Who isn’t?”

Down the street, Boggy Bottom Antiques & Collectibles was filled with customers browsing “Dolly/Reba 2024” T-shirts while they waited for a table. Tracy Jones, a co-owner, said sales had at least doubled in the last two months. At the Vault, a wine bar across the street from Reba’s Place, Saturday sales had quadrupled, said the owner, Janny Copeland.

“We’re getting a Starbucks,” she said. “I don’t care what anybody says, we wouldn’t get a Starbucks here if Reba’s wasn’t coming here.”

Atoka wasn’t always a small town. In the 20th century, it was home to a booming coal-mining industry and a stop along the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railway. In the 1970s, the furniture retailer Ethan Allen and the Wrangler jeans company opened factories in Atoka, but closed them in 2006. The city lost almost 600 jobs. Last October, according to census data, nearly one in five Atoka County residents lived in poverty.

“A city is a living, breathing entity,” Ms. Erwin said. “It is either growing or it is dying. And we were dying.

She said she tried to persuade companies to set up shop in town, but they told her, “We need a place where our people will want to live, and that is not Atoka, Oklahoma.”

About five years ago, Ms. Ervin and other city officials, including Mayor Brian Cathey, began working on a plan to revive downtown. Then the pandemic hit. Ms. McEntire moved home to care for her mother, who was dying of cancer, and spent several months here in quarantine.

The singer had a history of helping out locally. Starting in 1987, she staged several concerts in nearby Denison, Texas, to raise money for the Texoma Medical Center, whose rehabilitation clinic is known as Reba Rehab. Now she was looking for “a legacy project,” Ms. Erwin said.

Presented with the proposal for Reba’s Place, Ms. McEntire agreed to put up half the money, and the Choctaw Nation provided the remainder. The total investment was “several million,” said Kurtess Mortensen, the restaurant’s chef and the Nation’s executive director of retail, brand and merchandising. Any profits will be split between the Nation and Ms. McEntire, but Mr. Mortensen said, “This is not going to be a big moneymaker.”

Ms. Entire conspired. “I know it is a very tough industry,” she said. “There is more to life than money.”

The Choctaw Nation draws most of its revenue from its 22 casinos throughout Oklahoma, and plans to spend the earnings from Reba’s Place on health, education and housing initiatives for the reservation. In Atoka, the Nation has already established housing, a health clinic, a community center and opened franchises of chain restaurants, like Chili’s.

At Reba’s Place, about half of the 134 employees are members of a federally recognized tribe. The restaurant also serves beef raised and slaughtered on the Choctaw Nation, and its gift shop will soon sell items made by tribal members. Mr. Batton, the chief, said he hopes to open more locations of Reba’s Place in other parts of the reservation.

The city has also invested in the project. The Atoka City Industrial Development Authority bought the building for $200,000 in 2020, then turned it over to the restaurant in return for an equal value in payments and services. Reba’s Place also receives rebates on a portion of city sales tax. (Ms. McEntire provided the restaurant with her money, name and memorabilia, but is not involved in daily operations.)

Mr. Mortensen, the chef of Reba’s Place, is no stranger to bringing a big-time restaurant to a small town. She ran the Pioneer Woman Mercantile for five years.

With the Mercantile, he said, “we were creating Disneyland, Main Street USA” But many Pawhuskans were unhappy with the sudden surge in traffic. In Atoka, Mr. Mortensen has held several community meetings to allow residents to voice concerns.

“I’ve been yelled at and thanked and everything in between,” he said.

Many people worried that there wouldn’t be enough parking. But others were excited by the prospect of jobs that paid more than the state and federal tipped minimum wage of $2.13 an hour. At Reba’s Place, servers start at $8 an hour, cooks start at $14 and every full-time employee is eligible for health benefits.

Before she was hired as a server at Reba’s Place, Christy Pittman ran a spa that had to shut down when the pandemic started.

“I went to college, I had the degrees, I had everything I needed,” she said. But in Atoka, “there just wasn’t enough quality jobs.” She now makes enough to get her nails done.

Wyatt Delay, who works in the gift shop, said he was amazed by how many people had traveled from outside the state to visit. “We’ve had somebody from the Virgin Islands, New York, Michigan, Oregon, Washington State.”

Holly Gleason, a music critic in Nashville, said she wasn’t surprised, as Ms. McEntire has one of the widest audiences of any country star. “Everybody agrees on Reba: Black, white, Native American, Asian, LGBTQ, Bible-thumping Christians,” she said.

And while other country musicians have collaborated with national corporations to open their establishments, Ms. McEntire chose a local partner in the Choctaw Nation. “She is really making it a tried-and-true, this-is-who-we-are experience,” Ms. Gleason said.

Still, several locals said they can’t afford to eat at Reba’s Place. “Unless there were more cheaper prices for us common folk, I wouldn’t be going over there,” said Ruby Bolding, a retired artist. She was eating dinner at Cazadorez, a Mexican restaurant where steak fajitas cost $12.99. At Reba’s Place, the chicken-fried steak is $27.

“But that doesn’t mean I am not glad it is here,” she added, “because it does bring in a lot of people. I love Reba, and I relate so much to her.”

Max Lane, a retired teacher who was attending service at Cornerstone Church — where Ms. McEntire’s brother-in-law Mark Eaton is the pastor — said a “fancy” spot like Reba’s Place didn’t attract him. “I’d rather go to the Dairy Queen.”

Ms. McEntire defended the restaurant’s prices. “It is not quick, out of a bag, throw it in a microwave — it is quality, handmade food,” she said.

Plenty of others agree. In February, Reba’s Place made about $130,000 a week in revenue, and since the restaurant started taking reservations in early March, “people have been calling pretty constantly,” Mr. Mortensen said. This month, a speakeasy will open on the third floor.

Could Reba’s Place grow to become the next Dollywood, Dolly Parton’s Tennessee amusement park? “I don’t know if I could ever touch that,” Ms. McEntire said.

Ms. Ervin, who helped hatch the project, is more optimistic. “I think Reba’s could be bigger than Pawhuska or Tishimingo,” she said, referring to Ms. Drummond’s and Mr. Shelton’s businesses. With the highway running through it, Atoka already has more drive-by traffic than those towns.

And most important, she said, it has Reba.

Author: Yuvi

My name is Yuvi, I work as Sub Editor at newscinema.in

20 March, 2023, 2:30 pm

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