Undefeated, Oklahoma City Pushes Forward

Three years after the Murrah Building was bombed, a plan to revitalize the city has many here excited about the future.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Unlike most folks in this town, Richard Williams has almost no recollection of the morning of April 19, 1995, when his workplace, the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, was bombed. People tell him that he was pulled out of the rubble that used to be his office, 100 feet from ground zero. They say he didn't have a pulse at the time.

But there is one thing that Mr. Williams has always been clear about: The people of Oklahoma City would not let their hometown be defined by one hateful event. They would rebuild.

"The rebuilding is our way of renewing our personal commitment to the community," says Williams, who was assistant building manager in 1995. "We are proving to the world that we can move on with our lives and get back to the new normal."

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It's a sentiment that can take a visitor by surprise. But as Oklahoma City looks forward to a landmark new building project with anticipation, the true character of the people in this frontier town is coming out.

"When you look at towns like Birmingham [Ala.] or Grand Forks [N.D.], places that have dealt with disaster, the common thing that happens is that you really find out the best of people," says Devery Youngblood, who works to attract private investment through the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce. "Outsiders tend to talk about the bombing more than we do. We think about it, but in many ways, we've just gone on with our lives."

Indeed, while few people here will ever forget what occurred on that tragic, sunny April morning three years ago, the people of Oklahoma City have an abundance of reasons to look forward to the future and not dwell on the past. The first fruits of a $350 million dollar plan to revitalize the downtown core are beginning to appear, and Oklahoma City is emerging as a success story.

"Oklahoma City has a lot to teach the nation," says Rick Horrow, president of the Miami-based Horrow Sports Ventures, which helped Oklahoma City develop its Metropolitan Area Projects (MAPS) plan. Under the plan, nine major new facilities - including a library, a performing arts center, and a convention center - will be built within a mile of each other in the downtown area.

A national model

Perhaps because of the media attention given to the bombing and now the rebuilding, many cities are watching how Oklahoma City redesigns itself as they contemplate similar projects. It is "the national laboratory for bundling infrastructure projects into one process," says Mr. Horrow. "I can guarantee you all eyes [are] on Oklahoma City this week" as the first of the projects, the Bricktown Ballpark, hosts its first games this weekend.

If that sounds boastful, consider this: The plan, which was approved by a referendum in 1993, is the largest comprehensive urban renewal project of its kind. Most of it is paid for by a 1 cent hike in the sales tax, and the rest will come from new businesses moving to the downtown, including a new 26-screen cinema and a new Mariott hotel.

Thirteen other cities are also considering MAPS proposals of their own, including storm-ravaged Birmingham, which will be voting on a MAPS project next autumn.

City business leaders here say the rebuilding projects are driven in part by urban decay and in part by economics. Officials note that Oklahoma City narrowly lost a bid to become a United Airlines hub seven years ago over "quality of life issues."

"If downtown is the living room of a city, then you probably wouldn't have wanted to live here before," says Mr. Youngblood, driving past a blighted stretch of storefronts three blocks from the bomb site.

Pointing to an aging storefront, he adds, "That building was ugly on April 18 [1995], but got worse on April 19" when the bomb shook many buildings off their foundations, even miles away from the blast zone.

Like others here, Youngblood is betting that combination of projects under MAPS will draw people back to the city. Most exciting of all is the Bricktown Ballpark baseball stadium, which held its first game yesterday with the home team taking on the Edmonton Trappers in front of a capacity crowd of 15,000. In fact, when tickets were made available for the game, they sold out in three hours.

In front of the stadium stands a statue of Oklahoma native and New York Yankee great Mickey Mantle, who died last year. Twenty of Mantle's teammates were on hand to leave their handprints in concrete and help pay tribute to their friend.

"Nicest bunch of guys you ever met," says former Yankee Hank Bauer, chatting with teammates at a posh reception. "We never fought, never."

"We might get on each other," interjects Yogi Berra, the famed catcher.

"Yeah, if Yogi screwed up, or I screwed up, we got on each other, but that was it," Mr. Bauer says. "It was a different game then."

The memorial

Less than a mile from the ballpark, survivors of the blast are working toward a more somber goal: building a memorial to honor the 168 victims, and the people who worked to save them. Nearly $12 million in private money has been raised thus far and they expect ground-breaking to take place October 1999.

The memorial plans are rich in symbolism. On the grass lawn where the building once stood, 168 glass chairs will be spread out. In the street where the Ryder truck was parked, a reflecting pool will stretch between two stone arches, marking the minute before and the minute after the blast. Across the street, fruit trees will be planted to honor the firemen, police, and other rescuers who risked their lives in the crumbling building.

Searching for resolution

Of course, even today, the unadorned site draws 1,000 visitors a week. They come to run their fingers along the chain-link fence where concrete walls once stood, to read the notes to lost loved ones, and to pray for the victims and their families.

Bud Welch goes there two or three times a week to remember his daughter, Julie Marie, who died in the blast. Building this memorial has already brought healing to Mr. Welch, who has resolved his anger against convicted bombing conspirators Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, and renewed his personal campaign against the death penalty.

"She was my baby, my pal, my confidante," says Welch. "But how is executing McVeigh and Nichols going to help me heal? It won't."

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