New Tourism Dept. Head Hopes to Right the Ship, Restore Trust

The Oklahoma Department of Recreation and Tourism is moving forward after cutting ties with a restaurant chain occupying state parks.

Tuesday, April 4th 2023, 6:13 pm

The Oklahoma Department of Recreation and Tourism is moving forward after cutting ties with a restaurant chain occupying state parks.

The contracts between the state and Swadley’s Foggy Bottom Kitchen were at the center of controversy and legal action. In October, a new executive director took over the department and now looks to restore trust with the public.

That person is Shelley Zumwalt. Over the last decade and across the Capitol Complex, Zumwalt has seen quite a few offices.

“I started out at the Office of State Finance,” Zumwalt recalls. It would be the start of state service that landed her in several different roles.

Her new role took her downtown to the offices of the ODRT. It’s there you will mostly find her, but perhaps it’s a different office she prefers –at one of the 35 parks she oversees.

“Honestly, it’s the biggest privilege,” Zumwalt said, looking off the balcony of the lodge at Roman Nose State Park.

It is not a privilege without cost or challenge.  

“I saw an agency that was in crisis,” she said.

It was a crisis made public through a report from the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency which showed millions of taxpayer dollars misused.

Zumwalt was tasked with the restoration of trust from without and morale from within.

“I think that when you are in crisis and you have people that have just gone through something that from an internal perspective is stressful it makes them scared of what the future of their agency is,” Zumwalt said.

She believes the department was understaffed.

“We only had 1 attorney, less than 5 finance people and then 3 HR people for an agency that had over 700 people,” she explains. “This was a staff that was not looking toward the future. They were just surviving.”

Her concern was a future without public trust.

“We are going to have to continually prove ourselves,” said Zumwalt. “To be an agency that has shifted from what has happened previously to the standards, the morale, you know the objectives that we have now.”

The shift centers on 2 top priorities – increasing transparency and adding additional oversight.

The job isn’t just about trust, but about protecting that which is close to her heart - the state parks she visited as a child.

“I knew that whatever I did was going to harm or help what I care about so dearly,” Zumwalt said, thinking about the time she spent there with family. “I think that is kind of what a lot of people feel about the state parks.”

It’s a responsibility she now carries for people she may never meet.

Zumwalt also built a reputation in state government as a fixer. She took over the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission during the pandemic.

The first fix with ODRT will be finding a restaurant to replace Swadley’s Foggy Bottom Kitchen.

The department is expected to make an announcement about the search on Wednesday.


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