Grapes of Wrath In Reverse: Oklahoma City as Land of Opportunity

I recently had the opportunity to spend some time interviewing Mayor Mick Cornett of Oklahoma City about the huge transformation of his city, both in terms of how it’s perceived and its real economic results.  As an aside, my plan had been not only to provide you with a written summary of our conversation, but to post an audio file so that the entire interview would be available.  Alas, the technology gods were frowning, and when I hit “play back” on my (allegedly) state-of-the-art audio system, the hour-long recording was empty – yes, completely empty.  So, for this first issue of Cities at Work, only a written record is available.  However, I have the assurance of Mayor Cornett, that if clarity is lacking due to the author’s poor recollection of detail, he will respond to any questions or points of clarification you make.  So send your questions to me (see end of article for email link) and I will be delighted to pass them on to the Mayor. 

-Amie Devero-

If you happened not to hear the laudatory news of Oklahoma City’s (OKC) growth and vitality, then it could only have been because you haven’t paid attention.  Amongst some of the recent accomplishments by this capital of the great State of Oklahoma have been:

  • Kaufmann Foundation Names OKC  “#1 City in America to Launch a Business” in (Oct., 2011 ).
  • Oklahoma City Named One of the Nation’s 100 Best Communities for Young Peopleby America’s Promise Alliance and ING (Oct. 2011).  Along with this ranking comes the   information that OKC has more start-ups per capita than any other city in the US.
  • Devon Energy commits to building a 50 story skyscraper in downtown OKC, the first skyscraper to begin construction in the US since 9/11 – and further promises to stay in OKC and continue to build their workforce of 2000 plus high-wage employees.
  • The Boeing Company moved over 250 high-paying jobs from Long Beach, California to Tinker Air Force Base in OKC.  Just two weeks ago Boeing announced a closing in Wichita, from which they are moving a further 800 engineering jobs to OKC.
  • Continental  resources announced a move of 250 workers from Enid to OKC.

These are just the most public and visible items coming across the transom.  In fact, there is a ton of activity going on, and much of it has been funded through municipal tax-dollars, and supported through the ensuing private sector activity.  So how is it possible that in a national economy with 8% unemployment, a widening income gap, lack of affordable housing and a foreclosure bust, OKC has bucked the trend on all counts?

Well, as you might imagine, some of it is luck – or at least conditions that no one can take direct credit for producing; some of it is geography; and some of it is culture, a culture of good planning and a strong cohesiveness between the city’s leadership in all factions and its citizens.

Geography is a plus for OKC, lying as it does at the crossroads of three major Interstate highways – I-35, I-40 and I-44.  That makes getting there pretty easy.  And while it might not seem obvious, one great result of that positioning is a steady flow of tourists and their dollars into OKC – as even in the midst of a recession, a weekend away by car is still a popular choice for a family getaway.

Another fateful historic OKC  fact was that it never had a 1990s property boom.  Well, the upside of no boom is that there is no bust.  As a result, property prices are stable, and foreclosures are at predictable levels for normal economic times , not astronomically high as they are in so many other parts of the country.  Without the pressure of a property bust, construction activity has been stable and now, as a result of the huge amount of growth in downtown, really strong.
By strong, I mean, construction is hopping. The downtown is growing.  There are so many projects underway that a sea of cranes hovers within the skyline.  Amongst the projects are the Devon Energy Center skyscraper, a redesign and rebuilding of the entire downtown street grid including the addition of a boulevard and narrowing of most surface streets and the construction of several hotels.  Plus, there is much more on the drawing board.

As the Mayor spoke, mentioning project after project – most funded by the City—one couldn’t fail to wonder how they are paying for all that.   Cities across the country are broke and finding it impossible to maintain services and necessary infrastructure upkeep, and OKC is pouring dollars into development.  The answer may begin to reveal the distinct culture that seems to be unique to OKC.  It’s a contradictory reality in a city in the most conservative and Republican state in the nation:  Taxes are the source of the funds.

So how did the OKC city leaders successfully levy taxes to the tune of approximately $90 million dollars a year over the last fifteen years in a conservative, Republican stronghold?  Well, this may be, at least in part, a function of the very special culture and sense of unity that OKC has.  “People in Oklahoma City put the city first”, says Cornett.  He adds that the sense of strength and city loyalty may have been deepened by the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.  But that “all for one” culture didn’t start there, because the project-funding taxation began before 1995.

One clear symptom of that unity is a truly cohesive city government.  While so many American cities are subject to untold municipal shenanigans, from public shaming to Mayor versus City Manager infighting, corruption and embezzlement and frequently  dysfunctional City Commissions and Councils, OKC’s government works together.  The last several Mayoral contests featured easily reelected incumbents. But even in open elections (1987, 1998 and 2004), despite highly contested races, the adversarial campaigns do not translate into adversarial administrations. The City Manager (who actually holds most of the decision-making authority) has been the same person for 11 years.   Further, each new Mayor has embraced the projects that were begun by the previous Mayor, allowing an extraordinary and rare continuity that makes for substantial productivity.
But such a strong culture can’t build a city on its own.  It took a unique set of projects and associated taxes to get things going and some strong and persuasive skills to get everyone on board.  After all, even in OKC, retired suburbanites are liable to balk at being asked to fund inner city school development.  So, one piece of the puzzle was the Mayor, City leaders and Chamber of Commerce being able to speak to suburbanites and retirees in a way that made sense and resonated with their priorities.  That evangelism started a long time ago, and spoke to the focus of every grandma and grandpa’s greatest concerns – being close to their grandchildren.    Clearly, if there are no lucrative jobs for young people in the city, then homegrown talent will leave, and they will not come home except on the rarest of occasions to visit.  It seems that an OKC brain drain would have touched grandparents where it hurts most, in their hearts.

The funding projects themselves were accomplished through a series of phased and goal-based initiatives called MAPS(Metropolitan Area Projects).  There were three projects, each one limited and paid for with a $.01 sales tax.  The unique aspect of these taxes was that they had the following qualities in both conception and practice:

  • Closed-end duration
  • Intended to fund specific projects and ONLY those projects
  • No budget over-run funding

These programs generated a huge amount of funds, and because the funds were earmarked for long-term projects, they also grew in interest as the projects they were meant to fund came to fruition.  Each MAPS project was specific and themed.  The first MAPS project started in 1993 and during the 66 months it was in effect raised $309 million in tax revenue.  In addition, the tax revenue earned interest of about $54 million, also used for the MAPS projects.  In an unusual move, the program was extended by six months so as to “finish MAPS right” – hence its additional six month duration.

MAPS 2 was primarily used to fund school improvements so that the educational environment would be raised to the standards expected of a growing city that planned to be home to lots of high-paid workers.  MAPS 3, currently underway, is focused on an anticipated huge increase in population by 2030, many of whom will be over 60 years of age.  So the goal is to create a “senior-friendly” city, where all of the lifestyle conditions and services are available for an aging population.  The specific areas of work for the dedicated tax revenue and interest from MAPS 3 will be Community Centers, improved transit (street cars), enhanced and added sidewalks and finally, trails for biking, walking and jogging.   Amongst the great outcomes of MAPS 3 will be senior wellness centers throughout the city that provide swimming pools, fitness classes, libraries, crafts studios and social areas for residents at very low fees.  The total projected revenue (not yet complete) was expected to be raised over the 7 years and 9 months of the MAPS 3 tax period is $775 million  To date, it is ahead of target.

It hasn’t all been good news – there have been significant hurdles.  In 2008 General Motors closed a manufacturing plant that employed 2300 people.  The loss of the plant was at the source of as many as 4700 job losses, putting suppliers and vendors out of work as well as auto-workers.  But in a fascinating bit of creativity, the county went to its hometown Air Force base and to the Pentagon, to offer the building to the military, tax-free, for its use.  The military was delighted at being able to add to its infrastructure with no investment, and at not having instantly to address its own aging facilities.  This served the county and its incorporated cities despite the expected cost, by avoiding the blight of a disused plant, deepening its ties to the military and the base, and ensuring that jobs in the re-purposed GM plant would eventually come back as jobs for the military.  To accomplish this, the county went hat in hand to the citizens – albeit buoyed up by chamber financial support.   Despite the potential added burden and risk, the county voters, including those in the city of OKC, approved the expenditure of $50 million to purchase the plant and lease it to the military for $1.00 a year – on the condition of the military creating jobs.

It should go without saying that the migration of more and better paying jobs to the region, coupled to the intense investment made by the county, the city and the chamber in its own assets, also attracts investment from the private sector.  Businesses and non-profits have taken note of what is happening in OKC and they have acted on that.  This is where one ends up back at the beginning of this story– OKC has the most start-ups per capita in the US.  Not an accident, a consequence.

There is much more,  but let me just jump to the end of our conversation.  When asked what the biggest lessons have been of his leadership of Oklahoma City, Mayor Cornett shared some very interesting insights and admonitions.

  • Mine for gold in the city’s most critical resource, its people.  Use focus groups and surveys and whatever other tools are available to really understand what the customers want and care about, and use that information to develop strategy and initiatives.
  • Beware of boom times.  When things are going ridiculously well, stay aware that they can go badly just as easily.
  • Take the steps to ensure “clean” hand-offs.  It takes a long time to learn the job of Mayor (or City Manager), and having to reinvent the wheel can easily use up 75% of a term.  Whenever possible, build from the past, not over it, and keep continuity with the last administration’s focuses, projects and strategy.

Mayor Cornett isn’t arrogant or willing to rest on his laurels.  There is still more to do, and undoubtedly obstacles ahead.  But right now, Oklahoma City is enjoying the fruits of its labors and its patience.  A city isn’t built in the course of a single Mayor’s administration, but in a succession of strong leaders who can forge a bond with citizens so that the entire city moves forward together, persistently, with discipline and a shared commitment to the future. Oklahoma City, in a fashion reminiscent of the cattlemen and homesteaders of its history, through old-fashioned planning, hard work, and steadiness – an approach that apparently is as effective in the 21st century as it was in the 19th.
To hear more directly from Mayor Cornett, watch the City of Oklahoma City State of the City address, being aired on CSPAN.  Also, send questions for Mayor Cornett by clicking here.

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