Former Gov. George Nigh wants to be a problem solver and not a caretaker in his return to state government as interim tourism director.

Nigh will be the featured speaker at the Pauls Valley Chamber of Commerce Banquet on Tuesday, April 18. The banquet will be held at the Bosa Community Center.

"I want to be able to tell the next director, every knot in our rope has been untied," he said in an interview last week with The Associated Press.

At 78, Nigh says he never envisioned in his "wildest dreams" that he would be back in a government role when Gov. Brad Henry, a fellow Democrat, asked him to take the job.

Then he remembered that when he was governor, he called on former Gov. Henry Bellmon, a Republican, to come to his aid and serve as interim director of the troubled state welfare agency.

Bellmon, who had retired from the U.S. Senate, was out in the wheat field plowing and had to return the telephone call later.

"He said, 'Why would I do this?' I said, because I need you and the state needs you," Nigh said.

So when Nigh was asked to temporarily take over the tourism agency he was associated with so many years as lieutenant governor, he said he couldn't say no.

But he told Henry and Lt. Gov. Mary Fallin he had one condition: He would submit his resignation to be effective exactly five months after taking the job.

In typical Nigh style, however, the former history teacher amended that to make it five months and one day so he would be going out of state government for the last time on April 22, the anniversary of the Great Land Run of 1889.

Nigh said it was very important that he submit his resignation in advance. After all, he said he had promised his wife, Donna, "I think five different times that I had retired for good."

The job is a natural fit for the former governor, who said the agency was essentially created to give him something to do as lieutenant governor in the early 1960s, when it was split away from commerce.

Since that time, the lieutenant governor has served as chairman of the tourism commission.

Nigh, who served over three decades at the Capitol as a House member, lieutenant governor and governor, became known as the father of tourism in Oklahoma.

"Tourism became near and dear to me, getting conventions, movies, films, the lodges, the parks and so forth," he said.

In a bit of irony, he is involved in negotiations to sell some of the state lodges that he vigorously fought to keep as a state asset in previous decades.

Lake Texoma Lodge is on the front-burner. That is the lodge that former Gov. Frank Keating once compared to a "North Korean resort," criticizing its lack of windows to take advantage of a lakeside location.

"We have a project where we can probably bring in a $350 million resort complex there if we can get the land transferred. That's been in court. There's been a lawsuit and I think I'm about to get it settled. I hope to do it before I leave."

He also said that a group is interested in taking over Lake Murray State Lodge near Ardmore, "tearing it down and building a new resort there."

Two former state lodges _ Arrowhead and Fountainhead in eastern Oklahoma _ were sold several years ago. They were the newest lodges in the system, which dates back to the 40s.

Nigh said he still likes the idea of state lodges, but there has been a recurring problem with them.

"We can't get appropriated funds to maintain them and we can't charge resort prices because they are so run down."

He said Arrowhead and Fountainhead were funded largely with federal dollars and "were rural economic development projects" that created jobs in a depressed rural area. "They served their purpose, but we couldn't keep them up."

Looking to his work ahead, Nigh said he wants to get as many problems as possible out of the way for the next permanent director.

One problem he stepped in to solve was a dispute over building a pair of $5 million tourist information centers, ending a senseless situation where $10 million in federal funds was sitting idle because of "a little argument over where they should be built," Nigh said.

Nigh announced earlier this month that the centers will be constructed on the sites of current centers at Blackwell and Erick in time for the state's Centennial celebration.

Nigh, who became president of the University of Central Oklahoma after he was governor, said the tourism agency has suffered because of a lack of continuity, having had five directors in seven years.

He stressed the importance of tourism to the state as No. 3 economic factor behind energy and agriculture.

"As I've said before, our goal should be to get people to come to — and not just through — Oklahoma."

If people can be persuaded to stay in town for a night or two and see the many attractions in Oklahoma City, Tulsa and other towns, "We'll make the most significant economic contribution you can imagine," Nigh said.

For Chamber Banquet ticket information call the Chamber office at 405-238-6491.

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