A Dream Decades in the Making: Willa D. Johnson Recreation Center Opens in NE OKC

Published in Metro Family Magazine March/April 2023.


Over the years, the metro has experienced new developments and growth — a renaissance — that have led to hyperlocal community transformations, including in historic Northeast OKC.

The EastPoint Project, for example, reengaged and revitalized NE 23rd Street. With an outdoor mall including retail shops, restaurants and a gym, plus a grocer and health center nearby, the development has brought new energy to the area. Adding to this excitement is the June 2023 opening of the new Willa D. Johnson Recreation Center – a modern, state-of-the-art OKC Parks facility located off I-35 and NE 10th Street.

The center’s namesake, Willa D. Johnson, was elected and served as city councilperson for Oklahoma City’s Ward 7, in which the new center is located, from 1993 to 2007. Johnson was the first Black woman elected to the council and then served another decade as Oklahoma County commissioner, retiring from public office in 2017.

During her time in office, Johnson was a champion for parks and recreation projects, including advocating for a new recreation center at Douglass Park. She was also involved in supporting the original MAPS and MAPS for Kids projects and successfully secured bond funds to refresh the NE 23rd Street corridor between Broadway Avenue and I-35, among many other ventures.

The city council adopted a resolution naming the center after Johnson in December 2019 and OKC Parks broke ground in the fall of 2020. The $18 million project has been funded by a bond package included in the Better City, Safer Streets program.

Current Ward 7 Councilwoman Nikki Nice has been instrumental in bringing the new community development to fruition, further continuing Johnson’s legacy with the idea of establishing an endowment fund.

The endowment will help fund youth programming at the facility and subsidize youth who need financial support to participate in the programs, said Mason Williams, OKC Parks unit operations supervisor for aquatics, athletics and fitness. Staff hope the community will continue to contribute to the endowment fund, housed through the Oklahoma City Community Foundation, to increase accessibility for youth programs.

“We were fortunate,” said Nice. “The endowment had been established and Ms. Johnson was able to see the endowment match fulfilled before she passed away.”

Johnson died in May 2022, but her dream for this recreation center will come to fruition when it opens this summer.

Ways your family can enjoy the new Willa D. Johnson Recreation Center:

Explore multigenerational recreation. 

The community-focused facility promoting health, wellness and quality of life spans 22,000 square feet. The center will offer recreational and social opportunities for community members of all ages, from children to seniors.

“We really see the Willa D. Johnson Recreation Center as a multigenerational center,” said Williams. “It’s the first of its kind in OKC that is city owned and city based and will serve a greater area with a broader reach.”

Historically, OKC Parks recreation centers have served their individual neighborhoods within a 1 to 3 mile radius. But Williams expects this new center to have a much broader reach, serving up to a 5 mile radius, thanks to the focus on providing opportunities for the whole community.

“Best practices show that different ages and generations work
well together and benefit from recreational opportunities together,” said Williams.

Check out the family-friendly features, programming and pool!

The new recreation center replaces the current Douglass Community Center built in 1926. It’s the first modern multi-purpose recreation center built within OKC Parks in more than 40 years.

The new center will provide active recreation space, fitness areas and classes, basketball courts, pickleball courts, a teaching kitchen for cooking classes, classrooms, multi-use rooms and an indoor pool complete with a lazy river and water slide. Swim lessons will be offered as well.

A child watch area will be available for children ages 3 to 6 while their parents or guardians make use of the facility, and a teen lounge will include an e-sports and gaming area, large TVs and desktop computers.

The pool and a community room will be available to rent for parties.

Councilwoman Nice says the center will provide programming the community had not previously been able to access.

“We’re looking at leagues, tournaments [and] maybe swim meets,” said Nice, who added this is all in an area that once had no public pools.

Memberships will be available for a monthly fee with more information available at okc.gov/parks.

Enjoy colorful public art. 

One hallway in the new center will be dedicated to showcasing art from local students and artists. Some of the first pieces that will be on display were created by students from Douglass High School.

Councilwoman Nice also plans to engage local artists to help decorate the interior of the facility.

Connect to the community. 

Physically, new pathways will connect the center to the nearby Douglass Park and its soon-to-be-renovated baseball field. The
park and field are just steps away from the James E. Stewart Golf Course, which Johnson was involved in reopening during her time on city council.

Community connections will also be built inside the center.

“We have dedicated staff who love working with youth of all ages and can mentor them on their path progressing toward college or career,” said Williams. “And youth can interact with professional people in the community who can help mentor and guide them in their path.”

For more information about the Willa D. Johnson Recreation Center, grand opening events or supporting the center through the endowment, visit okc.gov/parks.

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