Special Reports

How Oklahoma City officials turned downtown from dying to vibrant

Part of Oklahoma City’s downtown revitalization plan includes Bricktown, which features restaurants and shops and water taxis offering rides on a man-made canal. City leaders injected life into the city with sales tax initiatives.
Part of Oklahoma City’s downtown revitalization plan includes Bricktown, which features restaurants and shops and water taxis offering rides on a man-made canal. City leaders injected life into the city with sales tax initiatives. The Wichita Eagle

OKLAHOMA CITY — The 1980s and early 1990s were desperate times in Oklahoma City.

The oil and gas industry, Oklahoma's bedrock, collapsed. Six of the city's seven largest banks had to be recapitalized and sold.

Industrial recruits had no interest in Oklahoma City, where voters had repeatedly chosen shrinking tax levies over maintaining facilities and infrastructure.

"We were kind of down to ‘Last person out of town, turn off the lights,' " said developer Kirk Humphreys, the city's mayor from 1998 to 2003.

Out of that desperation grew a fundamental shift in the city's development thinking, orchestrated by then-Mayor Ron Norick, who served from 1987 to 1998:

"Maybe your kids would like to have a city, and maybe you would like them to have a city where they could get a job here and not have to move away to Dallas, Houston, Kansas City or wherever," Norick said.

Seventeen years after the passage of the first of three sales tax initiatives, known as Metropolitan Area Capital Projects, or MAPS for short, downtown Oklahoma City is thriving with $400-billion in private investment, a National Basketball Association franchise, triple-A baseball and hockey teams and a Bricktown downtown entertainment district full of clubs, restaurants, million-dollar condos and offices, connected by a man-made canal with water taxis.

Consumers picked up the tab for almost $1.5-billion, through a pay-as-you-go debt-free concept funded by a 1-cent sales tax, and two subsequent renewals, all approved by voters.

The blueprint for Oklahoma City is equally simple, according to city leaders and businessmen:

* A pressing need. The city's economy was dead, and no part of it was more moribund than downtown.

* A strong communicator in the mayor's office who's in front of the public, pitching projects, and guaranteeing and delivering success

* A city council with taxpayer and voter credibility, accumulated by delivering quality projects on time and under budget

* A mobilized, unified business community through the chamber. The Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce has financed and conducted all the sales tax campaigns over the past 17 years.

A terrorist attack — the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building — helped strengthen the community's faith that it could answer any crisis.

"I think we were surprised by that, surprised by how well we handled the bombing," Humphreys said. "Then we opened the Bricktown Ballpark and people just loved it.

"We're not a big city at all, but out of the crash and the bombing, we learned that we could do what we need to do to succeed."

The pressing need

In 1982, the bottom dropped out of Oklahoma's centerpiece oil and gas industry after about 15 years of prosperity that lulled state and local governments into complacency.

"We really kind of went asleep at the switch," Humphreys said. "Leadership didn't put up any bond issues for anything, even to maintain infrastructure."

Meanwhile, tax levies plummeted as voters routinely refused bond issues.

"The average school levy in our state is about 22 mills for the large districts," Humphreys said. "Ours went down to 7 in Oklahoma City because no one would so much as approve a bond issue."

Oklahoma City's decline came to a head in 1991, after voters approved a 1-cent sales tax to build a building for a billion-dollar United Airlines maintenance facility that would have provided 5,000 jobs.

United officials took one look at the aging downtown and headed for Indianapolis, where they opened the maintenance facility.

At the same time, the city had no money to maintain its collection of outdated attractions, some as old as the 1959-vintage fairgrounds ballpark.

"We'd been chasing all these big deals and we were always the bridesmaid," Norick said. "So we decided to shift directions. The people, the voting public, were willing to tax themselves. I wondered if they'd tax themselves for their own benefit."

The sales tax, Norick said, was essential so the city could maintain the credit to fund street and utility projects.

"Besides, you have to ask yourself who pays sales taxes," he said. "The answer is a lot of people who don't live here in the first place, either tourists or people who work in the city and go back home."

In fact, city researchers determined that 32-percent of the $1-billion currently raised from sales taxes came from non-Oklahoma City residents, Norick said.

The mayor came up with nine projects — Bricktown Ballpark, the Ford Center, renovating the Myriad convention center, the Bricktown Canal, new trolleys, a full renovation of the Civic Center Music Hall, fairgrounds improvements, a new library and improvements to the Canadian River. Price tag: $363-million.

And one vote.

"You can't have one piece pass because folks love the symphony and another piece fail because the symphony crowd hates baseball," Norick said.

That's the genius of Norick, said Roy Williams, president of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce.

"Our leaders backed away quite correctly from the philosophy of luring industry in to save and take care of us," Williams said.

"Instead, we needed to make this place better, make it a place companies want to bring new employees to."

Lessons learned

Here are the key planks in downtown Oklahoma City's economic revival:

* Put a well-spoken businessman in the mayor's office, then let the mayor sell the city.

"Our success is more of a series of three mayors in a row, great communicators with a high level of public trust," said Larry Nichols, CEO of Devon Energy, whose company is building a 50-story office tower downtown.

"It's completely about leadership from the top. Voters trust a face, not an institution, and there must be a face you identify with, or you can't succeed."

"And Ron Norick was perfect for the role," Humphreys said. "He had political capital and he put it on the line and the voters trusted him.

"At that point, the voters didn't trust the City Council or city staff, and they didn't view the city in a positive way. But they viewed Ron Norick in a positive way, and he pulled together the various interest groups and got it done."

* The City Council must develop and maintain credibility with the public: Get quality projects done on time and on budget.

"It's vital. Just vital," Norick said. "If you don't have credibility with the public, you won't get anything done.

"As long as the city and your leadership does and says what it's going to do, the voters will keep voting for what we want to do.

"But if you trip up, you lose credibility, you lose the faith of your voters and it's over."

Any project that veers off-track, coming in late, over-budget or less than advertised, is disaster, the mayors said.

"It's a really delicate balance," Humphreys said. "You keep credibility as long as you keep performing and you keep encouraging people to invest in the right kind of things, keep investing in themselves."

* Unite the business community, including the chamber, behind downtown initiatives.

"The city's relationship with our business community is the reason for MAPS' success," said current Mayor Mick Cornett, a former television news personality who's been in office since 2003.

"We work alongside each other, recognizing that we each have a responsibility to advance the city. If you don't work together, the business community can't call an election and we can't call a campaign. We can't do anything without each other."

Business involvement means work and it means philanthropy, Nichols said.

For the three sales tax campaigns, it meant millions from businesses, officials said, including an estimated $300,000 for MAPS, $1.8-million for last year's campaign and $800,000 for MAPS for Kids, the second initiative targeting school improvements.

"It's the right thing to do," Nichols said. "We are all citizens of this community and we're very involved as a corporation, and by actively encouraging employees to be involved in all kinds of philanthropy.

"And if you want to look at it this way, if we hadn't fixed Oklahoma City up, there's no way Devon can attract the quality employees that we need to have to function as a major corporation.

"We would have had to leave. We would have had no choice."

Part of that unified front requires buy-in from conflicting political factions, Humphreys said.

"But I'll tell you what," he said. "I'm a conservative. And a true conservative believes in a good investment. A good conservative realizes you don't get something for nothing."

The results

It's difficult, if not impossible, to find a discouraging word about Oklahoma City's Bricktown.

"It's just a great place to walk a baby," Connecticut native Joyce Knowlton said on a warm May afternoon as she pushed her grandson's stroller.

"And have an ice cream," she said, beaming. "And get a beer."

"There's just so much happening down here," said her daughter-in-law Kelly Knowlton, a Connecticut native living in Oklahoma City. "I mean, you pick one place to walk each time down and then catch the different action."

Bricktown has been a lucrative place to do business, according to two managers.

"More room to seat people is my biggest hindrance, I think," said Jamie Brown, the general manager of Earl's Rib Palace in Lower Bricktown.

"Between the events, the movie theater, the Oklahoma City Thunder and the concerts, business has been real good."

Scott's Printing and Copying, a business printing specialist downtown, is leaving its home of 17 years for more space and more presses, said employee Tony Gower.

"It's been that good," he said. "We're looking to go from 7,000 to 26,000 square feet, so we're not disappointed at all in downtown."

***

Downtown Master plan draft presentation

What: Downtown Wichita master plan draft presentation by Goody Clancy, the city’s downtown redevelopment consultants

Where: Scottish Rite Temple, 332 E. First St.

When: 6 to 8 p.m. Monday, June 14

Downtown Master plan workshops

What: Downtown Wichita master plan workshops

Where: Bank of America Theatre, 100 N. Broadway

When: Wednesday, June 16

8 a.m. Enabling downtown development

3:30 p.m. Creating transportation choices

5:30 p.m. Creating unique places

For more information, go to downtownwichita.org or call 316-264-6005.

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