Sustainable Journalism Foundation board member Warren Vieth and NonDoc editor in chief Tres Savage talk with Rep. Mike Sanders and retired Kingfisher County Court Clerk Judy Grellner at Strange Brew Coffee House & Tea Room in Kingfisher, Oklahoma, on Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021. (Angela Jones)

KINGFISHER — Mayor Roxie Alexander is so proud of her hometown that not even a classic Oklahoma downpour could dampen the spirits of the personalized tour she gave our staff Tuesday.

“I just love Kingfisher,” Alexander said, her Ford Excursion traversing the rainy streets of a community she has known her whole life.

Beyond being the birthplace of Sam Walton, the hometown of writer Don Blanding and the place where Yankees pitcher Carl Mays learned his sidearm delivery, Kingfisher offers residents a lot to be proud of.

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A grant from the Oklahoma Media Center has helped NonDoc staff visit the communities of Kingfisher, Duncan, Okmulgee and Tuttle this summer.

“We’ve got 5,000 people in the community that really support the school, and I’d say that’s what makes it so good,” new Kingfisher Public Schools Superintendent Daniel Craig told me this summer for a quick Q&A piece. “This year, we’re starting a dyslexia program (…) We’re going to hire some reading specialists and assistant reading specialists to really focus on those younger grades.”

Craig grew up in Kingfisher and has returned to a community that has been able to invest in its services. Over the past decade or so, Kingfisher residents have seen a new police station and hospital constructed on the south of town. Last year, city voters passed a half-cent sales tax that will fund a new fire station to replace the current station, which has been in use since 1976.

“We’re going to build something that can hold an eight-person crew, all of our equipment, plus an extra bay,” said Kingfisher city manager Dave Slezickey, a command sergeant major in the Oklahoma Army National Guard.

Perhaps most ambitiously, Kingfisher is also in the midst of completing a significant project made possible by, of all things, natural disasters.

Located about an hour northwest of Oklahoma City, Kingfisher has endured a series of serious flood events in 2007, 2012 and 2019. Following the 2012 storm, the community qualified for federal funding to remediate flood zones, which included compensating and relocating some housing that had been damaged and stood at further risk of flood.

Other funding has been obtained as well — including support from the Newfield Exploration Foundation — to construct what will be called the Newfield Community Park in the northwest quadrant of Kingfisher.

The town of Kingfisher, Oklahoma, has been making quality-of-life enhancements for community members, including the development of Newfield Community Park. (Provided)

“We got two land and water conservation fund grants and a recreational trails grant for this new park,” Slezickey said. “We’re putting in a pond so people will be able to fish. We got Boecher Lake given to us, it’ll be more for wildlife (and) there will be a dog park. We’ll have a food truck area. Basically, we’re going to have an event and festival facility a block off of our Main Street.

“We’re not stealing the [Bluegrass] Festival from Guthrie or the Medieval Festival from Norman — yet.”

A newly constructed bandshell stands behind a new pond in Kingfisher’s developing Newfield Community Park on Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021. (Tres Savage)

Slezickey said the new park’s development coincides with the completion of Kingfisher’s trails system.

“We’ve done a lot of quality-of-life enhancements,” he said. “One of them is our trails network. We’ve got about 11 miles of trails going through the community.”

Slezickey said a separate board for the trails system, Kingfisher Trails LLC, has been working on the project incrementally for the last 20 years.

“It’s worked out great, and we’re getting ready to start the last segment of it, and it actually goes from our sports complex south of town to Walton Plaza at Walmart,” Slezickey said. “You can’t build a trail to a commercial place, but because Sam Walton was born here they did a Walton Plaza in the Walmart parking lot, so you’ll be able to get to Walmart on a bike or by walking and jogging.”

‘We stayed on the grid’

The town of Kingfisher is home to Oklahoma’s oldest operational power plant that was first established in 1901. (Tres Savage)

Alexander and Slezickey also discussed the town’s electric utility system, which has moved from a frustration to a point of pride in recent years. Slezickey said Kingfisher is one of 62 communities in the state considered a “public power community” and is a member of the Oklahoma Municipal Power Authority.

“We’ve struggled with our electric,” Slezickey said. “Just trying to find quality employees and paying them what they’re worth, deferred maintenance (and) neglected maintenance. A couple years ago, we decided to reinvest back in our electric utility because it’s a significant revenue for us and helps pay for the police, fire and parks.”

Slezickey said his office started looking for people rooted in the community who wanted a career instead of a job. The city sent prime candidates it identified to apprenticeship courses. Now an eight-person crew, Kingfisher’s operation has received recognition this year from the American Public Power Association.

“We got some younger brains in there with us, and they just have a lot of pride in what they’ve done. They’ve improved a lot of system maintenance and system performance,” Slezickey said. “About five years ago, every time the wind shifted we lost power. We’re still one of, I think, six communities in the state that still has our generation asset (which means) we still have a power plant capable of producing about eight megawatts. It can’t power all of town, but if we have a loss in our transmission feed, we can kick it on and keep most lights on at homes and residences.”

Racing the impending rain storm, Slezickey led our crew to the Kingfisher Public Works Authority’s power plant, which Alexander said was established in 1901 and stands as the state’s oldest operating power plant. With its newest generation component installed in the 1960s, Alexander has dubbed it “the little power plant that could.”

Plant superintendent Winchester Smith said, during February’s historic ice storm, his team was able to put some power back on the grid with diesel generation.

“The Texas grid fell apart, so the [Southwest Power Pool] called on us to generate,” Smith said. “We stayed on the grid. While other communities were getting substations shut down, we stayed on.”

Reunion planning in the midst of COVID-19

Kingfisher Mayor Roxie Alexander and city manager Dave Slezickey talk with Sustainable Journalism Foundation board member Warren Vieth and members of the NonDoc staff Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021. (Kylie Hushbeck)

The past year has featured a lot of things getting “shut down,” and Alexander hopes Kingfisher High School’s 50-year reunion won’t end up being another one.

Alexander and Kingfisher native Warren Vieth are planning the event. Earlier this year, Vieth joined the board of the Sustainable Journalism Foundation, which governs NonDoc’s nonprofit operations.

Alexander and Vieth have been discussing the resurgence of COVID-19 in the lead up to the reunion, and Alexander said she believes most of the attendees will have already been vaccinated since most are over the age of 68.

“It is hard,” she said. “Warren and I have talked about it for a week or so now, and we’ve had other classmates call. They still want to have it. We’re talking about having masks for everyone there. My husband says no kissing and hugging.”

Vieth asked Alexander and Slezickey how Kingfisher has dealt with the political nature of COVID-19, masks and vaccinations.

“We haven’t had anger. We’ve had some opinionated (people). Really, what we’ve done is encourage people to follow the CDC,” Slezickey said. “I won’t say we rode the fence, but we’ve tried not to put any more fuel on the fire. It’s your choice, but we all have choices to make.”

Alexander said masks and vaccinations come down to personal choice.

“It’s your personal right to do what you want,” Alexander said. “If you don’t want to wear a mask, we’re not going to send the cops out here to make you wear one because they’ve got more things to do.”

Vieth asked his former classmate about the rich oil and gas history of Kingfisher County, which has been a key economic driver in the area for decades. Alexander and Slezickey said the city has been conservative when handling the pooling royalties earned off of municipal property.

Our team’s follow-up topic probed deeper on the topic, asking about the ongoing disagreements over damages to historic vertical wells allegedly caused by modern horizontal drilling.

“We’d rather talk about masks and vaccines than horizontal drilling,” Slezickey said with a laugh. 

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An afternoon with the Kingfisher Rotary Club

Also on Tuesday afternoon, NonDoc editor in chief Tres Savage was former Rep. Mike Sanders’ guest program speaker for the Kingfisher Rotary Club meeting at Johnson’s of Kingfisher.

Sen. Darcy Jech (R-Kingfisher), Rep. Mike Dobrinski (R-Okeene), Kingfisher County Associate District Judge Lance Schneiter were in attendance, as was former Sen. Mike Johnson, whose prominent family owns and operates the car dealership.

Tres took the opportunity to discuss NonDoc’s mission and history as a nonprofit journalism entity and to answer questions about how our publication tackles stories throughout the state.

“Where do you see this headed?,” Vieth asked during the Rotary Club meeting. “Here we are in Kingfisher, Oklahoma. We (at NonDoc) don’t have a big enough staff to cover every little town in the state. When push comes to shove and you have to choose, what types of stories are you going to choose over others, and how can you serve the interests of a little town like Kingfisher when there are 500 other little towns like Kingfisher all across the state?”

Tres responded that state politics shape local politics and that covering state government institutions like the Oklahoma Legislature has been NonDoc’s “bread and butter.”

He said the ramifications of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma came at a tough time “as another monumental news event in the middle of the pandemic, along with all the other things we’ve been covering.”

“But it’s something that is so fundamentally impactful for the future of the State of Oklahoma that we’re obligated to cover it,” he said. “We try to balance talking about the concerns of everybody. (…) There’s a whole set of dominoes in court cases that could be on the horizon about how this plays out.”

Kingfisher Times & Free Press publisher Barry Reid attended the Rotary Club meeting, and several people remarked throughout the day how much they appreciate their local paper, which is a family affair.

We appreciate local newsrooms as well, so Angela Jones and Kylie Hushbeck of our team spent their afternoon purchasing items for a “thank you” basket, which we dropped off at the newsroom after the paper had gone to print.

With all that is happening in Kingfisher, the staff will need the provisions.

(Correction: This article was updated at 12:15 p.m. Friday, Aug. 20, to correct the spelling of Boecher Lake and a referenced age. It was updated again at 11:30 a.m. Monday, Aug. 23, to clarify reference to a festival. It was updated again to clarify Slezickey’s military title.)