(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.
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?