Greater OKC has grown continuously from its birth in 1889, but its downtown began a slow death beginning with the departure of downtown department stores and banks about 1960 and continuing as oil production in Oklahoma declined from 1966-2006.

Greater OKC has grown continuously from its birth in 1889, but its downtown began a slow death beginning with the departure of downtown department stores and banks about 1960 and continuing as oil production in Oklahoma declined from 1966-2006.

Downtown’s economy has long been dependent upon oil which is notoriously cyclical. The boom and bust nature of the petroleum industry had by the sixties convinced civic and business leaders that natural market forces needed augmenting.

Chamber of Commerce leaders brought in famed civic planner I.M. Pei. His model for OKC was Copenhagen [I was in downtown Copenhagen several days in 1975 in the Ritz Hotel overlooking Tivoli Gardens. Their situation wasn’t applicable to OKC.]

His action plan was a pump priming approach used earlier in OKC for suburban industrial parks e.g., buy blighted property, clear it, and then sell it to developers. The Urban Renewal Authority [URA] bought a six-block area in the center of downtown and in 1974 with federal and city funds bulldozed most of it. [Preservationists saved the Colcord Building.]

That approach was like trying to construct a ten-story building starting at the third floor. It omitted the necessity of a vibrant downtown economy providing the foundation for everything they planned. It failed, and in its wake left a sea of parking lots, empty building sites, only one hotel, no restaurants, and silent, empty streets and sidewalks nights and weekends.

Jump Starting MAPS

In his account of the Metropolitan Area Project [MAPS], my friend Steve Lackmeyer named “Sandy Meyers, arts advocate.” She and I grew up together in Enid, so I called her. [1]

Sandra said that about 1991, at the tail end of the oil bust and Penn Square Bank debacle of the eighties, OKC was in the doldrums. She and Jo Carol Cameron were then trying to find a way to upgrade Municipal Auditorium home of the OKC Symphony Orchestra and Ballet. A 6,000-seat, barn-like structure built in the Depression, it needed renovating which required taxpayer funding. They created and co-chaired the Alliance for Cultural Facilities [ACF] which grew to a 150-member committee.

The ACF hired Gary Moore, consultant and Director of the Herberger Theatre Center in Scottsdale, Ariz. The ACF wanted Moore to assess the readiness of OKC to support their arts projects. Following a week of interviews of local civic and business leaders, Moore said that he had never seen a city more ready for rebuilding and rejuvenating OKC.

The Vision

My good friend and retired OKC Chamber of Commerce official Dean Schirf shared the following with me this week. “I will never forget our annual C of C retreat at St. Chrispin’s outside Seminole around 1991. It was a two-day retreat with the final two hours set aside for just barnstorming ideas for how OKC could stop its downward spiral. Board member Ray Ackerman took the floor and shared a vision that included damming up the river, bringing a river canal into downtown, and the building of a new arena and library. I remember at the time that our Board members looked rather stunned with the water idea, but fortunately for us City Mayor Ron Norick was a member of our Board and he bought into the plan and said he would do his best to get the city council on board. The rest is history as they say, and in December 1993 this plan was placed before the voters of OKC and the downward spiral of the city was changed in a most dramatic way. “[2]

MAPS

MAPS is the local equivalent of ‘omnibus’ bills in Congress in which diverse interest groups amend a giant bill. With so many sponsors, its passage was assured. [Oklahoma law mandates single-purpose bills.]

By 1993 various interest group in OKC converged in support of MAPS—a one-cent sales tax to fund a range of projects. [See List below] The Chamber of Commerce then hired Rick Horrow, a part-time Harvard law professor and consultant in taxpayer funding of sports arenas. Because Rick was “a sports guy,” Sandra spent many lunches convincing him to include arts’ projects in his recommendation. Her co-chair, Jo Carol Cameron, was mother of Bill Cameron, one of eight investors in Dorchester Capital headed by Clay Bennett, son-in-law of E.K. Gaylord. At that time, Bennett was seeking to buy an NBA franchise and get OKC to build a new arena.

In the meantime, Sandra had brought together a coalition of 15 local architectural firms to provide free assistance in planning and sketching out proposed projects. When Mayor Norick created a half dozen task forces to research various aspects of city life, the groups drew on the ACF’s research by the architects—thereby jump starting MAPS.

Sandra attributed the success of MAPS to “the best people in the right place at the right time.” Historians phrased it, “Many of the postwar advances in OKC shared a common element—they required the combined resources of city, county, state, and federal governments.” [3] Private interests in projects for the common or greater good of the entire community and funded by the entire community through targeted, time-limited sales taxes were OKC’s version of an omnibus spending bill. It worked.

MAPS I, II, and III have to date spent $1 billion in public funds which has attracted $2 billion from private developers. The “If we build it they will come” strategy worked astoundingly well.

Next Week: “OKC’s Future”

MAPS Projects 1993 [1]

15,000 baseball stadium $23 million

Myriad Arena, 20,000 seats 22

River, 3 dams 37

Convention Center 25

Civic Center Music Hall 27

Downtown Library 16

State Fairgrounds 12

Transportation Link 3

Property, paving, parking 17

Investments by District [1]

Automobile Alley $ 23 million

Film District $ 6

Midtown $321

Arts/Park Plaza $138

Deep Deuce $179

Bricktown $165

Lower Bricktown $ 93

Central Business $117

Oklahoma River $ 25

Public Infrastructure $ 979

____

Total $3.1 billion

[1] Steve Lackmeyer, The Oklahoman, Dec. 8, 2013, pg.8S.

[2] Dean Schirf, personal correspondence

[3] Faulk and Blackburn, 67, 178.