Christy Gillenwater took the reigns at the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce at the beginning of 2023, stepping into a very different city than the city her predecessor Roy Williams city inherited when he began almost two decades ago. Gillenwater discusses what she sees for the future of chamber and for Oklahoma’s largest city.
Christy Gillenwater landed on Oklahoma’s red dirt from Chattanooga, Tennessee, just a few months ago, and her positive impression, like many, was about the people who live here.
“The people here are absolutely the secret sauce,” she said. “To me, we have the most generous, kind-hearted, thoughtful people I’ve seen. They are extremely hardworking, collaborative, focused on the same vision and mission, all of which I absolutely love.”
The vision and mission she’s referring to is the idea that Oklahoma City residents are both proud of the city’s development of the last 20 years but also driven to produce more growth.
“It’s that level of work when the community decides something needs to happen,” she said. “They’ve been really thoughtful about building the coalition to bring that to fruition.”
Oklahoma City has been on Gillenwater’s radar for many years, and she’s been watching its growth from afar.
“I’ve had this long-distance crush on Oklahoma City,” she said. “And now to be here, is it’s just beyond exciting. Oklahoma City’s history is so much of the fabric of who the people are today. And I think there’s such a need to continue to cherish and appreciate that history, and how we’ve had to lift ourselves up from some of the deepest, darkest times.”
For Gillenwater, the future starts with understanding what has been successful in OKC’s recent progressive past.
“How do we continue to build on our successes of the past to continue delivering for the changing demographics of this city?” she said. “We’re growing. We have such an energetic and inspiring city mayor. How do we walk alongside the city and other key partners and continue to deliver great jobs and tremendous visitor experiences and small business support? How do we connect all the dots?”
Gillenwater said she is taking the first 90 days on the job to just learn the city.
“I’m calling it a listening and learning tour,” she said. “Our team is by no means stopping their work. We can’t do that. We have to continue to push forward. But I’m taking a moment to really listen and learn from those here to take note of what opportunities await us.”
In the coming years, Gillenwater sees potential growth for industries like bioscience and aerospace, as many do, and she has her eye on newer burgeoning industries like film too.
“We just have a lot of potential to continue to grow those specific industry sectors, along with of course, manufacturing,” she said. “We’ve always had a stronghold in manufacturing, and we will continue to do so as well. And obviously oil and gas and our long-standing partner sectors, we see continued opportunity there as well.”
Gillenwater points to what she sees as uniquely OKC attributes that will continue to push this city forward and help sell this city to others – from attractions like the new First Americans Museum and the river sports area to the OKC Thunder.
“I think one of our favorite experiences so far has been the Thunder and everything that the Thunder does to unite the community,” she said. “You can’t beat the impression that professional basketball or professional sports brings for a city. It’s just fantastic. The Thunder has also been one of our favorite pieces of being here in Oklahoma City.”
Outside of tourism draws, however, Gillenwater said Oklahoma City is structured differently than other cities she’s lived in and served in similar capacities. These differences will shape our future growth, as proven by how they’ve carved out our past.
“Something that sets Oklahoma City apart from other cities is how government and business have worked seamlessly together to rise up to challenges and to accelerate opportunities,” she said. “And that is a rare thing and something we can’t take for granted. And we’re really looking forward to future iterations of that.
“When I think about how we collaborate and convene and problem solve together, it’s really unique here and something other cities can learn from. And that is when you have four times your impact, when you have business and government partnering the way they do here.”
Past successes do not guarantee future growth, Gillenwater is quick to clarify, however. The momentum Oklahoma City is currently enjoying must be harnessed and continued, she said, before other cities catch up.
“The work isn’t finished,” she said. “When you’re building the best cities and regions for your people, you can never stop. And you always have to have the foot on the pedal because other cities are nipping at your ankles. And they’re learning from you.”
The key to the future: Continue to innovate and play the long game.
“You constantly have to innovate. you have to think differently and you have to have the endurance for the long road,” she said. “And it really is a long road. But also celebrate your wins Oklahoma City. I want everyone to know like, what y’all have done is amazing. It’s fantastic. Everyone should be so proud of what has been accomplished, but there’s still a lot of work to do. We need to harness the energy that people have to continue to bring more folks here. But at the same time, we really need to set our sights high for what we can expect in the future as well.”