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Transforming Oklahoma City: Using downtown revitalization to build a healthier community

Transforming Oklahoma City: Using downtown revitalization to build a healthier community

The Bricktown Canal through downtown.
The Bricktown Canal through downtown.

In 1992, Oklahoma City lost a bid to house a new United Airlines maintenance facility to Indianapolis. The city found that one of the reasons it lost out on this and other bids to bring new business to town was because the community’s overall low quality of life discouraged companies that did not want to pay for higher health insurance and treatment costs. However, the company also felt the city was not one where its employees would want to live, since the community lacked certain amenities that would have made it more attractive.

The civic leaders at the time recognized they needed to do something to revitalize Oklahoma City’s urban core. In response, then-Mayor Ron Norick proposed the Metropolitan Area Projects (MAPS) initiative in 1993.

Norick hoped this program would revitalize downtown in a cash-strapped city, even though he was up against an anti-tax constituency. Said Norick:

During the process of working on the city budget at the time, it was apparent to me that we had no monies available for maintenance or long-term capital needs for any of the publicly owned buildings, baseball complex, Civic Center Music Hall, convention center, those types of things. … I knew we had to address those, and the downtown in general was suffering – people were going to the suburbs. You could shoot a cannon down the street and it wasn't going to hurt anybody.

Voters back pay-as-you-go program

Typical municipal infrastructure projects are financed with borrowed money, or municipal bonds, which are paid back with property tax dollars. MAPS was instead designed as a pay-as-you-go project. It would incur no debt nor would construction start on any facet of the project until the money to pay for it had been collected and deposited in the bank. The MAPS initiative also included these other distinctive features: 

  • A volunteer citizens advisory committee provided oversight. They forwarded their detailed recommendations to the city council for approval.
  • A separate and dedicated city staff, hired specifically for the term of the program and paid out of sales tax revenue, administered the program.
  • Each project was allocated an endowment sufficient to operate and maintain the building without drawing on the city's general fund.

By a slim margin, Oklahoma City voters approved the 66-month capital improvement program. In December 1993, MAPS put into effect a temporary penny-on-the-dollar sales tax that collected $309 million, including $54 million in interest. Those revenues paid for

  • a new downtown baseball stadium;
  • renovation of the convention center;
  • improvements at the state fairgrounds;
  • the Bricktown Canal through downtown;
  • a new library and learning Center;
  • a near-rebuilding of the Civic Center Music Hall;
  • improvements turning the North Canadian River into a world-class kayaking venue; and
  • new trolleys.

MAPS for Kids

When MAPS was passed, Mayor Norick said, “A lot of people just voted on faith, hoping it would work.” And it did. The projects were built on time and within budget, and downtown started to come alive, attracting new economic development to the region.

In the wake of MAPS’ success, Norick’s successor, Mayor Kirk Humphreys, understood that Oklahoma City’s struggling schools needed work if the city wanted to continue its renaissance. He proposed MAPS for Kids, which called for the construction or renovation of 70 Oklahoma City elementary, middle and high schools while providing funding and equipment for others.

Once Oklahoma City residents saw the success of MAPS, they were more receptive to pass a second program. MAPS for Kids passed in 2001 with a 61 percent majority. The program, however, didn’t just rely on $514 million in sales tax receipts. This time, voters approved a $180 million school bond issue.

More than 100 area schools received MAPS for Kids funds, and they spent that money on technology, transportation and facilities upgrades. In many cases, schools were completely rebuilt. The Oklahoma City School District also added new gymnasiums to all elementary schools.

Oklahoma City goes on a diet

With the success of the first two MAPS programs, Oklahoma City had become a regular presence on any number of “best of” lists. In 2006, however, Oklahoma City was named one of the fattest cities in America. It was up to Mayor Mick Cornett, still in office today, to engineer a turnaround. Cornett is a charismatic figure, with skills developed in 20 years on local television, the last few of which were spent as a news anchor covering City Hall. This helps him go beyond intellectual arguments about why programs are needed, and connect with constituents on an emotional level.

After the city was called the second fattest in America, Cornett announced the city was going on a diet. At a press conference held in front of the elephant pen at the Oklahoma City Zoo, he challenged the city to lose one million pounds. He launched a website to track progress, and he got the citizens talking about the issue of obesity. He wanted to lead by example and pledged to trim 40 pounds himself.

But he also wanted the city to adopt more than a quick diet fix. Reviewing the city’s infrastructure, he “came to the conclusion that we had built a great quality of life if you happened to be a car.” Those on foot faced more challenges. Oklahoma City’s population of 610,000 was spread out over 621 square miles. There was so little traffic congestion that “you can get a speeding ticket in rush hour,” Cornett remarked. For decades, the city had not required developers to build sidewalks in neighborhoods, which meant there were 100,000 homes in neighborhoods with zero walkablity.

The mayor proposed MAPS 3 as a remedy. Like its predecessors, it’s a temporary, one-cent sales tax initiative that aims to collect $777 million. Projects include a downtown convention center; a central park; a new streetcar system; Oklahoma River improvements; Oklahoma State Fairgrounds improvements; senior health and wellness centers; and new trails and sidewalks.

In addition, the city kicked in additional funds to pay for sidewalks to connect neighborhoods to places that people might walk to, including schools, shopping malls and libraries. 

Building a city for future generations

The challenge now is to sustain and accelerate the progress. The city is putting measures in place to ensure there are plenty of structural supports to help residents get healthy and stay that way. For example, the city has adopted the Oklahoma City Bicycle Transportation Plan in 2008, the sort of document the city would never have approved in the past.

Cornett, now in his fourth term, continues to steer the city toward a healthier, more economically developed future. Though he saw most of his high school classmates move out of Oklahoma City, he is committed to reversing that legacy. He frequently reminds skeptical voters, “We are building a city where your kids or grandkids will choose to live.”

Photo via ChangeLab Solutions.

Comments

What a great story and what an example for the rest of the country, both in the improvements made and the way they were financed.
Several years ago I heard a speaker talk about how the Oklahoma City FEMA handled the bombing of the federal building. You could hear a pin drop for the entire time and I walked away with a strong feeling of admiration and respect for a city that was able to handle such a horrible situation with such compassion, strength and resolve. I will never again wonder why anyone would move to OC.

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