Urban renewal with a conservative flair

progress watch

Oklahoma City – one of just a handful of big US cities run by a Republican mayor – has taken a unique approach to revitalizing its downtown, relying on public-private partnerships, paying for projects as it goes, and doing it debt-free.

Oklahoma City's initial round of capital projects included transforming a district of abandoned warehouses into a shopping and restaurant district known as Bricktown.

Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor

Oklahoma’s schools, faced with a budget crunch, are increasingly going to four-day weeks. The starting salary for teachers hasn’t been raised in 10 years. The prisons are so overcrowded, they have asked for an additional $1 billion.

The state is facing an estimated $650 million budget deficit – and it’s likely to remain that way for the foreseeable future, because in this conservative state few want to raise taxes (and they can’t, without three-quarters of the legislature).

In short, there’s a big mess at the state capitol in Oklahoma City.

Across town, however, it’s a different story: The city has turned a neighborhood of abandoned warehouses into a chic shopping and dining area, built a grand new downtown library, erected a sports arena, and wooed its very own NBA team. Soon, it will break ground on a new convention center.

Remarkably, it hasn’t taken out a single loan to do any of this. No, this conservative city – the largest in the nation to vote for Donald Trump in 2016 – gave itself a facelift by bucking right-wing orthodoxy and raising sales taxes.

Now, the man who presided over much of the revitalization – four-term Republican Mayor Mick Cornett – is running for governor, and hoping to apply some of the same principles that worked at the city level to the state as a whole.

“The governor is in a position to inspire and be the champion of people,” says Mayor Cornett, speaking in an interview with the Monitor after his last State of the City address, in which he told the large audience that no city in America has come as far as his. “Health and education are two areas that this state has always had low standards for. We just allowed ourselves to not expect much,” he says. “My goal is to champion those two areas – and to raise people’s expectations.”

Politically, Cornett represents an increasingly rare breed. While Republicans control a majority of state legislatures and governorships, relatively few sit at the helm of America’s greatest engines: cities. Metropolitan areas are home to more than 85 percent of the US population and 90 percent of its gross domestic product. Yet fewer than a third of America’s largest cities today are run by Republicans. Among the top ten, only one (San Diego) has a Republican mayor.

Like many big urban centers, Oklahoma City has become less culturally conservative in recent years, says independent pollster Bill Shapard. For example, nearly two-thirds of the city’s suburban voters now support medical marijuana – something he says he never would have seen 20 to 30 years ago.

When it comes to fiscal matters, however, in some ways the city’s hand was forced. The decline of effective state government in Oklahoma – as in many states – has pushed responsibility for a whole range of projects from the capitol to city government.

“Metropolitan cities now need to do things that traditionally states did for them,” says Roy Williams, CEO of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, who formerly worked for the Oklahoma State Chamber. “Oklahoma is a great example…. It’s placing huge responsibility to figure out – how do you fill these voids that the state is neglecting?”

But while many cities have sought to revitalize their urban cores in recent years, Oklahoma City has done it in a unique way. Although the city has raised taxes, it has maintained a fiscally conservative approach by paying for projects as it goes – investing some $1.6 billion to burnish its image, all while remaining debt-free. It has also relied heavily on public-private partnerships, leading some critics to liken it to an “oligarchy.” 

The model has attracted interest from dozens of other cities, many of whom are shocked to learn the development projects were not financed. There’s significant skepticism, however, about whether a similar strategy could be employed at the state level.

'I was skeptical'

Oklahoma City’s revitalization was born out of a failure: In 1991, it lost out to Indianapolis on a bid to attract a United Airlines facility.

As people here recall it, United basically told the city, “You guys have the best offer, but we don’t want to live here.”

So then-GOP mayor Ron Norick decided the city needed to invest in itself.

He proposed a “penny tax” – a one percentage point increase in the city’s sales tax – to raise $350 million for a round of public works projects, including the ballpark, the “Bricktown” shopping district, the library, a new sports arena, and more. The measure, known as the Metropolitan Area Projects Plan, or MAPS, passed – though just barely.

The fundamental principle behind MAPS was that the city would not put a shovel in the ground for any given project until all the money for that project was in the bank. That way, every cent would go toward building – not toward interest.

“We have people [from other cities] contact us probably monthly, asking about the MAPS program, and usually it gets around to, ‘How did you finance this?’ And when we tell them we didn’t finance it, they’re shocked,” says David Todd, who has headed up the MAPS office for the past six years.

While the funding structure was relatively unique, so was the patience required of citizens. They had to pay into MAPS coffers for more than four years before the first major project – the ballpark – was completed.

Gary Slater, for one, wasn’t a big fan.

An Oklahoma City native, he’d heard the hype a decade before around the “String of Pearls” project, which promised stables, rodeoing, and picnicking right downtown. Then all the construction stopped.

“It kind of made you wonder where the money went, honestly. So when they started talking about MAPS, I was skeptical,” says Mr. Slater, who also wasn’t a fan of the plan to close the old baseball stadium where he used to take his T-Ball team with a wad of cheap tickets from the grocery store. “But [the new stadium] really turned out nice. I ate my words.”

While Oklahoma City has a weak mayoral system – Cornett serves part-time and is reportedly paid $24,000 – the mayor has been a figurehead for the city’s success. After 14 years in office, he enjoys a 68 percent favorable rating, nearly double that of the current governor.

Skeptics say the factors that have helped revitalize the city – particularly the willingness of locals to pay a tax, because they see where their money is going – can’t be replicated from the governor’s seat.

At the state level, “It’s this battle cry where nobody wants increased taxes under any circumstances,” says Pete Brzycki, a former commercial real estate broker who now runs the independent journalism website, OKC Talk. “It’s not like [Cornett] can go on the state level and say, ‘Oh, we’ll do MAPS for Oklahoma’ – that’s not going to work.”

A land rush

Oklahoma City has always been a bit unorthodox.

Its origins can be traced back to US troops firing shots in the air at noon on April 22, 1889 – signaling the start of the Land Rush. Thousands of settlers, who had come by wagon or train, surged into western Oklahoma. By nightfall, some 10,000 people had staked out land in Oklahoma City.

Ever since, there’s been a unique culture of the public and private sectors working together, says Mr. Williams, the Chamber’s CEO, whose work has taken him all over the US as well as Asia.

“It’s pretty unusual,” he says. “I’ve lived in a lot a lot of places where … there’s just no communication, and in fact there’s animosity” between business leaders and public officials.

In what he admits is an “extremely odd” arrangement, the Chamber runs the city’s MAPS campaigns – conducting polling to see what voters want, working with the city to finalize the MAPS package, and then convincing voters to support it.

Since the original MAPS program was approved, the Chamber has persuaded voters to support a second and then a third round. In 2001, a $700 million MAPS for Kids passed by 61 percent, enabling the city to build three new high schools and renovate more than 65 existing ones. In 2008, the Chamber poured $2 million into the $777 million MAPS 3 campaign, which passed by 54 percent. There’s already talk of a MAPS 4.

Ed Shadid, a city councilman and longstanding critic of MAPS, says the Chamber’s role effectively gives business interests veto power over the elected city council members – and the ability to push through expensive projects, like the $288 million convention center, which initially polled very poorly. People were more interested, he says, in senior wellness centers, trails, and sidewalks, which cost much less, so the city bundled them together into one package.

“You put these things together with the [convention center] to get the turd in the punch bowl past the finish line,” says Dr. Shadid, a surgeon.

Serving wealthy interests over others

Shadid, a 2014 mayoral candidate, also criticizes MAPS and other city initiatives for pouring money into projects that serve the city’s wealthy – such as a downtown streetcar – rather than those who need it most, like the workers who rely on an “anemic” bus system that provides only limited services in the evenings and on Saturdays, and none at all on Sundays in this metropolitan area of more than a million people.

When it comes to diversity, there’s ample room for improvement. Cecilia Robinson-Woods, the state’s only African-American school superintendent and a member of the Citizens Advisory Board that guides the development of MAPS projects, recalls a plan to give a new green space a “Lantern City” theme commemorating the white settlers of 1889 – showing no regard for how the Land Rush sidelined Native Americans and African-Americans.

“I’m boiling…. I said, ‘Was there any thought given to making sure that there was representation from all of the people who were part of the beginning of statehood?’ ” recalls Ms. Robinson-Woods, whose mother is from the Muscogee Creek Nation. She says her concerns were initially met with bewilderment, and then she was told that the art budget, which accounts for a very small percentage of the overall project, could be used to include representation of Native Americans.

Oklahoma City also spends very little on its social services grant program, and hasn’t increased that budget in 15 years, says Dan Straughan, executive director of the Homeless Alliance since 2004. But he adds that in the buckle of the Bible Belt, with a strong commitment to social justice ministry permeating the city’s culture, officials have found “other, really creative ways” to funnel money to such services.

After the 2008 housing crash, the city got $22 million from HUD to address a mortgage crisis that Oklahoma City didn’t really experience. So the city asked HUD if they could put some of those funds instead toward the Homeless Alliance’s campus.

“To everyone’s great surprise, they said yes,” says Straughan, sitting in his office next door to the city’s shelter, which includes showers, computers, a library branch, breakfast and lunch service, and even a pet kennel with free pet food and regular veterinary visits. Straughan says homelessness was subsequently cut from 2,500 people seeking services to about half that, though it’s since risen back to about 1,400 due to rising rental prices.

Influx of entrepreneurs

Those higher rents are being driven in part by young entrepreneurs who are finding new opportunities in Oklahoma City.

Evan Anderson, a Duke University graduate and Oklahoma native, was brought home by a family tragedy but immediately saw an “abundance of opportunity.” Now he’s chief executive officer of Oseberg, a tech startup in the oil and gas industry. There’s a service-above-self mentality here, he says, and mentors who are unusually generous. One personally provided the collateral for Mr. Anderson’s company to take out a credit line; another spent hours in personal visits to help him develop his product.

Fifteen or 20 years ago, it was hard to find such folks.  Just ask Renzi Stone, a basketball star at Oklahoma University who decided to stay after graduation, and founded his own company, Saxum.

“There are 10,000 of me in New York but there’s only one me here,” he realized, “and I probably can create something special.”

Today, that something special lies in a majestic old building downtown. Exit on the 5th floor and you’re greeted with tinted glass windows, and Millennials typing away in booths and cubby spaces with expansive views of the city skyline. Mr. Stone is the campaign chairman for Cornett’s gubernatorial campaign. His company, a PR firm, employs 55 people – Muslim, gay, straight, Hispanic, African-American. A third of them are first-generation college graduates.

They’re also the first occupants in the building since April 19, 1995, when Timothy McVeigh detonated a truck bomb at the Alfred P. Murrah federal building next door, killing 168 people.

The explosion was so powerful that residents 115 blocks away sitting at their kitchen table thought something had hit their home. It rattled the city, but also forged a unity that Cornett says has been crucial to its current success. For the 40-plus cities who have sent delegations to Oklahoma City to study its success in debt-free revitalization, it’s the one element that can’t be replicated.

“When people leave here,” he says, “the one thing that they have trouble emulating is that there’s a unity that’s here,” which he chalks up to having survived a major recession in the 1980s and then the bombing in 1995.

“Just like two people who go through an emotional time have a certain bond, it’s kind of like this city had a certain bond after those experiences,” Cornett says. “And that’s hard to artificially create.”

Editor's Note: The wording in the subheading has been updated to make clear that while the MAPS program has been debt-free, Oklahoma City itself is not. In addition, while the city proper has some 600,000 residents, the larger metropolitan area has more than a million; and Dr. Ed Shadid is a surgeon not an anesthesiologist.