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Lone Star pride meets high tech in one of the nation’s most beautiful attractions
As far as we can determine, there’s only one state in the union that has an official musical. Oklahoma is a decent guess, but the correct answer lies to its south and west. It’s Texas, y’all. Since its opening night in 1965, the ”Texas” outdoor musical has entertained 4.5 million audience members from virtually every corner of the globe.
Most recently, the event has become a central touchstone of a unique collaborative effort to digitally transform the second-largest canyon in the contiguous 48 states. West Texas A&M University, the Cultural Foundation of the Texas Panhandle, and the Texas Parks and Wildlife agency are partners in the initiative, which is enabling visitors in and around the performance space and throughout the canyon to connect to the internet.
Carved into the Texas Panhandle, 25 miles southeast of Amarillo, the 30,000-acre Palo Duro Canyon State Park is home to the Pioneer Amphitheatre, a natural arena where visitors gather to take in the starlit sky along with the stars onstage. It’s an ideal setting for the show, which blends history, humor, romance, and legendary Texas brio to showcase the history and beauty of the Panhandle. The park is a quick ride from the town of Canyon and the WT campus, where the technology journey had its beginnings.
One extraordinary feature of the WT campus is the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, the largest history museum in Texas. The museum, which features the work of the mother of American modernist painting and former WT faculty member Georgia O'Keeffe as well as a robust history, ethnology and material culture collection, is operated by the Panhandle-Plains Historical Society.
Recognizing the synergy between the museum and the Texas Panhandle Heritage Foundation that produces the musical, WT President Walter V. Wendler saw an opportunity to blend them into a single organization dedicated to preserving and promoting the Panhandle’s rich history: the Cultural Foundation of the Texas Panhandle, or CFTP.
The group assembled a statewide CFTP advisory board, and during a meeting in the run-up to the musical’s 55th season, the board proposed bringing enhanced internet connectivity to the amphitheater. The plan came to mind shortly after the completion of the university’s $50 million Buffalo Stadium, the top Division II football stadium in the country, and WT had the technological expertise to bring it to fruition.
James Webb, the university’s vice president of technology and CIO, is in charge of the project. “My goal with digital transformation was to try to help streamline and connect the show to a younger audience,” he said. Webb’s first step: Implement Wi-Fi in Palo Duro Canyon State Park, which did not have a wireless network. His second step: Build the necessary network infrastructure.
WT partnered with broadband provider Mid-Plains Rural Telephone Collective to provide connectivity. “We found out they had connectivity for the musical’s control room, and we spun up a Cisco wireless network to cover the whole area,” he said. “The show’s facility connects to a standalone network, so we built a brand-new network infrastructure and overlaid that on top of that network to provide Wi-Fi.”
The WT team was careful not to disturb the sophisticated array of wireless tools used in the musical’s performance. “We didn't interfere with the production and operations of the show. You can imagine all the wireless microphones used by the actors, the sound, the audio systems — there's a lot of wireless technology to make that happen,” Webb said.
The striking topography that draws 500,000 visitors to Palo Duro Canyon is composed primarily of sedimentary rock formations, which, while formidable, presented a very manageable challenge to Mid-Plains. The ability to make reliable phone calls in the park is a public safety concern that Webb is pleased to help mitigate with the expanded network.
“This is another example of how the Texas A&M System can collaborate with other state and local institutions to better the lives of Texans every day,” Texas A&M System Chancellor John Sharp said.
In support of the project goal to attract a new generation of park, museum, and musical attendees, Webb and the CFTP team developed a mobile app and digital signage, created a commercial to promote the show, and made Instagram and Snapchat filters to broaden their social media reach. In addition, the museum has a virtual walk-through tour which has been accessed by more than 15,000 visitors since its launch. The system also collects visitor data: To access the internet, users must input their email addresses. “We obtained over 10,000 email addresses this summer so the CFTP could then market and promote the show to that email distribution list,” Webb said.
The tremendous success of those efforts moved the CFTP advisory board to work with Texas Parks and Wildlife, which owns and manages Palo Duro Canyon State Park, to expand internet access throughout the park. CFTP board member Carter Smith, who is also the executive director of Texas Parks and Wildlife, championed the idea and made a financial commitment to the project. CFTP board member Karen Price, a former television anchor/medical reporter and spouse of Texas State Rep. Four Price, also has backed the Palo Duro Canyon internet project.
"I applaud the University, the Cultural Foundation of the Texas Panhandle and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in their combined effort to bring Wi-Fi to Palo Duro Canyon State Park. This will enhance the experience of park visitors and audiences enjoying the outdoor musical ‘Texas’ and enhance safety for all, visitors and staff alike. Given that access to reliable broadband is a necessity in all aspects of our lives, I am proud that the Texas Legislature has also made historic investments in this technology and enacted several key laws related to broadband, including HB 1960 in 2019 establishing the Governor's Broadband Development Council, and HB 5 in 2021 establishing the state's Broadband Development Office at the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts," stated Rep. Price.
Rep. Price, whose District 87 encompasses several Texas Panhandle counties, is a key supporter of the effort. Not coincidentally, Price is the recipient of the 2021 Connecting All Texans Broadband Award, bestowed by Digital Texas, a consortium of coalitions working to bring equitable access to reliable and affordable digital connectivity to all Texans.
“We had a new collaboration between a state university and the state legislature or a state agency. It's never been done before in the state of Texas,” Webb said. Because the IT staff, help desk, network team, and telecommunications team were on campus, Webb and his crew could be on site in 10 minutes. “That's not something that Texas Parks and Wildlife really can do because their group Is centered in Austin.” At over 460 miles southeast of Canyon, the city closest to the park, the state capitol is more than a 7-hour drive away.
The project is of great importance to WT from a branding standpoint. “It's important to us,” Webb said. “This is a tremendous operational expense for the University, but we are expanding our brand at the state park. When you connect to Wi-Fi here you'll see our home page and online learning programs.” It’s a welcome forward move into marketing technology for WT.
“Having Palo Duro Canyon in our backyard is a great source of pride for WT, the Panhandle’s University,” said WT President Wendler. “With our deep and historical roots in the canyon that run the gamut from our environmental research to our long affiliation with the Texas Outdoor Musical, it makes sense for WT to partner with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to improve not only the visitor experience, but also enhance communications for emergency management needs at Palo Duro Canyon.”
Presently, the university and the parks department are designing the wireless infrastructure needed to connect the rest of the park and its 1,500 acres of hiking and biking trails. “We are hoping that this is a new model that all of the state parks in Texas can use. There are 80 state parks here, so if you could partner with the university and the state park in that geography you could essentially do the same thing all across the state,” Webb said.
West Texas A&M University (also known as WT, WTAMU, and formerly West Texas State) is located in Canyon, Texas, on a 342-acre residential campus.
Established in 1910, the University has been part of The Texas A&M University System since 1990.
With enrollment of more than 10,000, WT offers 60 undergraduate degree programs, 40 master’s degrees and two doctoral degrees.
The University is also home to the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, the largest history museum in the state and the home of one of the Southwest’s finest art collections.
The Buffaloes are a member of the NCAA Division II Lone Star Conference and offers 14 men’s and women’s athletics programs.
West Texas A&M University
301 23rd Street
Canyon, TX 79015