Elliot Nelson, Blue Dome District in the MSNBC spotlight

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The gastronomic empire of prolific Tulsa restaurateur and publican Elliot Nelson, owner of McNellie's, El Guapo (loud automatic music warning), Yokozuna, Dilly Deli, Fassler Hall, the Dust Bowl Lounge and Lanes, Brady Tavern, and The Colony, was profiled Sunday on MSNBC. There doesn't seem to be a way to embed the five-minute video, so you'll have to follow this link to the MSNBC story, which deals with the unique opportunities and challenges that come with owning so many venues in close proximity to one another, all but two of them in the Blue Dome District.

Each venue is unique, so they avoid competing with themselves, but the restaurants operate in the same way, use the same point of sale system. Being close together makes it possible to share resources. The common system makes it easy to move staff around from one restaurant to another, and to use veteran McNellie's Group staff to help establish a new property. On the downside: McNellie's Group's success has potential competitors looking at the area, and rents are going up.

There's also the need to "grow the pie," to draw people to downtown who haven't yet made it their go-to place for dining and entertainment. From that need comes a new concept: the Dust Bowl Lounge and Lanes.

Many people try to credit Vision 2025 and the BOK Center for the Blue Dome District's success, but that credit belongs to the building owners like Michael Sager who kept the old buildings standing and the dreamers like Elliot Nelson who turned those old buildings into pubs, clubs, restaurants, and retail.

In 2000, eight years before the BOK Center opened its doors, Donal Cosgrave moved Arnie's Bar into the old Blue Dome Service Station at 2nd and Elgin. News stories as early as 2001 were calling attention to the new businesses opening in the district. A 2002 news story referred to the district as a "thriving commercial hot spot."

McNellie's was announced in March 2003, and originally planned to open that June, long before Vision 2025 went to a vote of the people, although its opening was delayed until 2004. Tsunami Sushi opened in 2003. In one news story, the head of the Tulsa Metro Chamber and the head of Downtown Tulsa Unlimited were waxing enthusiastic about the growing critical mass of businesses in the district.

By the summer of 2003, the Blue Dome was well known enough that my wife and I made a point of going to have a look around, and I suggested that Elgin, anchored by the Blue Dome at the north end and bordered by the proposed East Village, could serve as a replacement Main Street. (I made a few more observations when I drove back through the area again the following oppressively hot and humid Saturday night, trying to help my almost-three-year-old daughter get to sleep -- our block was without power from storms the night before.)

By the time Vision 2025 passed, there was already enough happening in Blue Dome to lead some to suggest building the arena nearby (e.g., on the then-vacant city-owned lot that's now home to ONEOK Field, or on the parking lot east of Elgin between 1st and 2nd). Ed Sharrer, now a city planner, wrote,

There are restaurants, dance clubs, pubs, an art gallery, and an art movie house within a few blocks of Second Street and Elgin Avenue. Dinner before the game? Dancing after a concert? All within walking distance -- the day the arena opens. Building the arena on the east side of downtown would turn an emerging scene into an instant entertainment destination. These businesses already exist, so there's no need for a "build it and they will come" approach. Let's build the arena where people are already going!

By 2004, Tulsa Police were increasing their presence in the area to deal with growing crowds.

By 2006 (two years before the BOK Center opened), a couple of young, female, hipster Los Angeles Times travel bloggers on a road trip around the western U. S. thought that the Blue Dome (specifically McNellie's, the May Rooms Gallery, and Dwelling Spaces) was worth writing home about. (Their blog entry is no longer on the LATimes site, but someone else captured it here.)

By 2008, before the BOK Center opened, the Blue Dome District had already achieved critical mass, and had hosted events like DFest, the Tulsa Tough cycling race, and the Blue Dome Arts Festival. (I wrote a column that May about a day wandering around a bustling Blue Dome District in the midst of the Arts Festival.)

There was some public investment involved -- a TIF district captured sales tax dollars to pay for streetscaping and lighting improvements -- but the Blue Dome reflects private investment, including a good deal of sweat equity. The best thing the city did for the Blue Dome District was to ignore it during the urban renewal orgy of the '60s and '70s.

So let's give credit where due, to Elliot Nelson and others like him, for their role in making the Blue Dome District what it is and filling it with good things to eat and drink.

DON'T FORGET: The 2011 Blue Dome Arts Festival runs this Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on May 18, 2011 12:37 AM.

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