Wednesday, June 21, 2006

How To Build A World-Class City

(cross posted at Firedoglake)
This is a story of hope, of bold visionary leadership, and grassroots political action successfully improving the lives of its citizens. A message very important in these dark days of rudderless and incompetent leadership.

Welcome to Oklahoma City!

A blast from a cannon announced the birth of Oklahoma at high noon on April 22, 1889. The children of these pioneers have overcome tremendous obstacles to make their sires proud at the close of the last century and the beginning of the new. In true pioneer spirit, they saw a better future over the horizon and dug deep to put forth the most massive quality of life package ever devised in this nation. A total of nine whopping projects, each one being massive enough to stand alone for voter approval. Oklahoma law requires tax increases to be approved by a vote of the people. To build a world-class city, the requirements are 1) A need 2) leadership and 3) value.

The need.

Oklahoma City was in pretty bad shape. Huge expansion had made it the largest city in the nation when I was a kid. The running joke in the 60s was Fidel better straighten out or we'll send them OKC boys down there to annex Cuba. The SCOTUS "white flight" decision brought blight to our inner city, as it did throughout the country. "Urban renewal" just made things worse, by eliminating a lot of housing and the oil bust of the mid 1980s was ruinous to our economy. Penn Square Bank collapsed, followed by a whole slew of others. If it was Thursday, more banks would fall. Personally, I could not find work in the oilfields of Oklahoma and took other work, each one paying less than the last. And when poverty knocks at the door, love flies out the window. My wife left me with three small children, the youngest in diapers. To try and improve our future prospects, I enrolled full-time at college, swallowed my pride, and took a part-time job flipping hamburgers.


Mayor Norick took office in 87. He was picking cotton in the arena of public service in the huge shadow of his father, former Mayor Jim Norick, who oversaw the expansion of the 60s, modernized our water system and built the convention center, and other large projects. The needs were huge and the funds were non-existent. The push was on to lure major employers. Large corporations, knowing their worth, require tithes for consideration. Three times Mayor Norick called for, and received a vote to increase sales taxes for the benefit of these jobs. All three times the employers chose to go elsewhere. The natives were growing restless. Our infrastructure was crumbling. The ADA was going to make our baseball park obsolete, the Canadian River that divides the town from north to south drained so well we had to keep it mowed. The livestock area of our state fairgrounds were dilapidated as was our convention center and civic center. Mayor Norick joined with other city leaders to address these needs and instead of making a "Sophies Choice" the decision was made to bundle all of them together and offer an all or nothing choice to the people. The nine projects were:

The river project. City leaders, sensitive to the "dust bowl" image suffered by Oklahoma, proposed creating a series of river lakes by building a series of three dams. This "crown jewel" project cost a total of $52 million.

A brand new 20,000 seat indoor sports/entertainment arena. Total cost $64.8 million.

Renovation of the Civic Center performing arts building. Total cost $51 million.

Renovation of the Myriad Convention Center and the addition of 100,000 square feet of new ballrooms and meeting rooms over the north plaza. Total cost $63.1 million.

State Fair renovations. The loss of the National Finals Rodeo to Las Vegas in '85 was a severe blow to OKC. Updating the fairgrounds arena and other equine facilities was seen as mandatory to prevent future hemorrhaging. The fairgrounds project was the only one to be completed on time and on budget. Total cost $14 million.

Public transportation linkage to the projects. Originally planned as a light rail system, that got railroaded by our very own congresscritter Earnest Istook R-Warr Acres, who blocked matching Federal funds as a waste of money. City leaders pivoted to 9 rubber tire trolley replicas. Total cost $5.3 million.

A shiny new baseball field located in Bricktown. The Oklahoma Redhawks is the farm team for the Texas Rangers, and the ballpark was fashioned after Dubyas old sandbox located south of the red river, in the state we refer to as "Baja Oklahoma." This 12,000 seat facility was rated in the top two nationwide for minor league play. Total cost $34.2 million.

The Bricktown Canal. Bricktown was one of the more blighted areas of downtown. An old brick warehouse district that virtually sat in the evening shadows of the downtown skyscrapers defiantly jutting out of the plains. Some going concerns remained, but most buildings were vacant, sporting broken windows and housing unsavories. The idea was to model it after Dallas' famed "West End" with the canal being reminiscent of the San Antonio riverwalk.
the canal would be a mile long, have water taxis, and link downtown to Bricktown to the river. Did I mention vision yet? Total cost $23.1 million.

The Library/Learning Center. Four stories tall and 110,000 square feet it has been called the "Ft. Knox of learning". Boasting meeting centers and all forms of modern multi-media state of the art gizmos, the aptly named Ronald J. Norick Downtown Library provides those seeking wisdom a one stop shop. Just call Ronnie "the bus driver" cause he's taking us all to school. Total cost $21.5 million.

So there you have it. Nine projects totaling $329 million dollars and is not related to directly recruiting a major employer. The vote would be a county-wide one cent sales tax increase for five years. A real tough sell for a city that was broke and closing banks in the throes of a major recession. It was obvious this was a "pie in the sky boondoggle."


As a major in journalism, I became acquainted with Dave Sellers, the owner and publisher of the Capitol Hill Beacon, a community paper serving South (of the river) OKC. He hired me out of college as an adman, because "there isn't a lot of money in journalism." Dave, just like Dave Thomas of Wendy's, sported hokey short sleeve dress shirts and was the salt of the earth. I had been with the paper for a couple of years before the Metropolitan Area Projects (MAPs) vote came up. Southside, where I have lived most of my life, is very strong blue collar, and at the time, mostly democrats. The Beacon had been publishing newspapers since five years before Tolstoy died. Since the community didn't seem to support a subscription based newspaper, the Beacon elected to be a free paper, delivered to every home in South OKC (appx 46,000) every week. The regular Joes and empty nesters frequently voted down bond issues and such and was viewed as a negative area by the "silk shirts" that resided to the north. In short, the issue would fail without the support of the Southside.

I heard many refer to this negativity issue, and I resented it. One day, the President of Southwestern Bell came to visit Dave. I was sitting there when he asked Dave "What's wrong with the people on the Southside? They are so negative and vote down bond issues. Dave smiled, more to show his teeth than to show his pleasure, "It's a question of value." Did you catch that? Five words, none more than two syllables. Can he edit or what?

Dave saw the value and decided to support the measure. We were to put out a special publication spelling out all the details and benefits. My role was to generate the funds to get this message out. There isn't a damn thing free about the press. Dave knew the no vote was always built in. To counter it the choices are to suppress it or increase the yes vote. The vote passed by a narrow margin on December 14, 1993. The Southside also supported it by a very narrow margin.

And now, thirteen years later, you can't find anybody who voted no. The river we used to mow now has national boat races. Bricktown is shiny and buzzing and full of eateries and classy fashion stores and dance halls. Our new indoor arena just completed hosting a season of professional basketball (a first professional anything for OKC) by the New Orleans Hornets, due to the loss of their stadium from Katrina. Promoter boasts of private investment of $140 million were wildly off the mark; they have topped $500 million. Coffers are full and rainy day funds are being created. I'm so fuckin' proud I could just bust. The word for this success is "progressive".

My next project is:

How To Build A World Class Civilization.

Can I get a little help over here?


Skinner said...

Read your post over on FDL but thought I'd come to your house to respond: Great post, and if you've got any ideas on how to expand it into a world class civ, I'm there.

AirportCat said...

OFG, we could use that kind of vision down here in New Orleans, but sadly enough it is unlikely anyone would listen. George Shinn seems to like OKC well enough that y'all might get to keep the Hornets. Unlike Tom Benson (Saints owner), Shinn has enough class not to say as much out loud, but New Orleans is a long way from being able to support two professional sports franchises at the moment. Anyway, good on ya, nice post (I also read it at FDL, but came chez vous to comment).
As far as civilization goes, well, culture New Orleans has, but civilization ... not so much. Still: showcase your strengths, the cowboy and oilfield culture, the pioneers, the dust bowl refugees ... treasure your history. Build support for your institutions of higher learning (not just their football teams, but the arts and sciences). And here's a thought (FWIW, probably not much!): just about every air traffic controller working in the USA today spent time in OKC. Those ATC guys are everywhere, can you do anything with that?

prostratedragon said...

Outstanding, rich post! Just a couple of thoughts:

1. It looks as if OKC made a better choice of projects to begin their revitalization than some cities have, in that they emphasized projects that would work together to enhance the sense of place and presentation—urban curb appeal so to speak—of the city, and also in that they largely worked with what they already had, including the undeveloped natural resource of the river.

2. Just at a glance, it also seems that the process in OKC allowed for the development of a real community consensus on what was to be done. Certainly the tax referendum suggests that. Cities are getting better at this than during the old urban renewal days, but the voice of citizens is still not much heard on projects with more private input, even if they will shape the city or a neighborhood almost as much as the ones that were part of MAPS.

3. airportcat's remark about the difference between civilization and culture is so well put. The civilization part, or at least the civic awareness part, is something that we have developed a problem with in much of this country, not just New Orleans. It's part of how we have consumed our way into having a BushCo Administration. However, the OKC story as OFG has told it is an outline of a way out.

Anonymous said...

Great post, although i do take issue with your assetion that there have never been professional sports played in OKC prior to this past basketball season. By your own admission, the Redhawks are the farm team to the Rangers, and pro hockey teams have been there since the early 1900s. "Major league" is the term i think you should have used.

On a more substantive level, i'd like you to address the effect Timothy McVeigh had on the collective consciousness of the greater OKC community. Ive heard from several people in OKC, particularly those associated with the operation of the arenas and convention complex there, that the array of projects never would have been approved by the voters if not for the collective sense of disaster caused by the bombing. Plus, i beleive there was also a pretty big infusion of federal dollars after the bombing to match the local sales tax. Perhaps you could comment briefly on the larger issue of the bombing and it's affect on the community. Thanks.

Oilfieldguy said...


True, "Major League" would have been a better term. The Timothy McVeigh bombing, (April 19, 1995) had no effect on the vote (December 14, 1993) as it occurred after.

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deb said...

Hey OFG,

Good post. One of the solutions tha I have been promoting to the candidates that I've been volunteering for is to "secure" the money from SS and Medicare, but not in a lock box. Instead, allow cities and states to borrow the money at a low interest rate (similar to the current system where cities and states sell bonds). This would be a secure method of holding onto the SS and Medicare surplus. It would allow the money to be used in a way that benefits our sities, states and provides real growth and jobs for Americans.

BTW, My sister lives near OKC and has worked in the oil industry since 72 in OKC. I have visited your city more than a few times...great place!!!

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