In the early 1990s, Oklahoma City was in grim shape.
So it sought to lure a giant United Airlines maintenance facility and its 5,000 to 8,000 jobs. It was a huge – and very public – effort.
The city agreed to build the building, and the state came up with more than $150 million in incentives. The facility went to Indianapolis.
Oklahoma City officials were crushed.
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United officials later told Oklahoma City officials that they had secretly sent executives into the city and found they just couldn’t bring themselves to live there.
“The quality of life in Oklahoma City had just sunk so far that we could no longer buy the allegiance of corporate America,” said Mick Cornett, the current Oklahoma City mayor.
It’s a story Cornett tells often as he talks about Oklahoma City’s rebirth in the 1990s.
From that defeat, and the subsequent bombing of the federal office building, a very conservative city approved a sales tax increase to pay for the amenities that served as the core of what is now Bricktown, its downtown entertainment and arts district. The results from that effort built trust.
A few years later, it passed another big package of school improvements and then, in 2009, more city and health amenities.
Today, Oklahoma City serves as a model to other midsized Midwestern cities for its vibrancy.
Cornett was in Wichita on Wednesday as part of a regional conference of mayors, hosted by Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell. But he is happy to get out the message that investing in quality-of-life amenities is critical for city growth.
It offers a lesson for Wichita, Longwell said.
Wichita doesn’t have Oklahoma City’s “advantage” of bottoming out, he said. But its electorate has shown that it can be pretty conservative about taxes, overwhelmingly rejecting a 1-cent sales tax two years ago, the most controversial part of which would have gone for economic development.
So what does Oklahoma City have that Longwell wants for Wichita?
“Attitude,” Longwell said. “We’re our own worst enemy.”
But, he added, Wichita has built a lot in the past five years, and that’s about to accelerate: a new library, new baseball stadium, new downtown hotel and a long list of private projects, including a new Cargill complex.
With a stronger quality of life, cities don’t have to spend as much on incentives, he said.
“We lack two things: We weren’t quite as desperate as they were, and we don’t have the attitude today that they have that they are a great city,” Longwell said.