“Downtown is dead and we helped kill it. There’s no major retail, no major attractions and no place to eat.”
- Councilman I.G. Purser, April 17, 1988.
The quote is correct. But factually, it was wrong. Downtown had only one hotel open, and it was on the verge of closing. People didn’t play or live downtown, and they were choosing more and more to work outside of downtown as well.
And that, my friends, was “Point A.” It was 21 years ago, to be exact.
Downtown is now home to a blossoming local retail scene that includes two bicycle stores, a handful of clothing stores, several gift shops, a liquor store, a music store, theater, a big box retailer, a boutique grocery, art galleries and a winery.
Dozens of restaurants are open day and night, seven days a week, catering not just to downtown workers but also to thousands of people who now live downtown and stay at its seven hotels.
Downtown is home to the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum – an attraction we never sought, but are with us and draw millions worldwide who come to find out for themselves about the “Oklahoma standard.” It’s home to a spectacular Oklahoma City Museum of Art, Bricktown – which is envied by many around the country, and the iconic Myriad Gardens.
Thanks to the arrival of the NBA and the RedHawks, it’s difficult to peg any week during the year in which there aren’t at least 10,000 people coming downtown to be entertained.
Now the skyline is about to change dramatically with construction underway on the 50-story headquarters for Devon Energy. Project 180 will pump $140 million or more into a makeover of downtown streets and parks.
Downtown isn’t dead. It’s alive. It’s thriving.
And that, my friends, is “Point B.”
And I’ve been asked by some readers to explain how we got from Point A to Point B. As the author of “OKC Second Time Around,” a history of downtown history I compiled with Jack Money dating back to the inception of urban renewal in 1956, and as someone who has witnessed much of the comings and goings of all this the past dozen years, I guess I’ve learned some things.
I’m only one person. I’ve talked to a lot of folks, I’ve done a lot of research. But I don’t know it all. I never will. So all I can provide is my best shot at condensing what I’ve learned, and letting others determine what it all means.
This is history, as requested. Not a reflection or commentary on current events.
Purser, who has since passed away, was almost right. Downtown appeared dead. But it still had some life left to it. The annual Festival of the Arts was a critical bit of lifeblood, bringing large crowds of locals back downtown at least once a year. The Myriad Gardens had just opened, and while it wasn’t much to look at after it first opened, it had potential. Minor league basketball, followed by minor league hockey, added to the momentum, providing just the right elixir to give Bricktown its early but small burst of life as an entertainment district.
But all of this was fragile. It was the Metropolitan Area Projects initiative in 1993 that clearly, indisputably, added rocket fuel to downtown’s engine.
How did we get from Point A to Point B? It involved leaders like Mayor Ron Norick and the Greater OKC Chamber’s Ray Ackerman agreeing something radical had to be done. They didn’t conduct the early planning in public. But they didn’t freeze out the various constituencies. The losing groups felt as if they had been given as fair a shot as the winners. There were winners and losers when it came to creating a sales tax ballot to fund major community improvements.
We all know the winners. We don’t think about losers – a museum of natural history, a downtown ice skating rink, the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. They weren’t happy about the outcome, but they didn’t complain about being excluded from consideration during those early behind the scenes discussions. And there was even public debate by the city council over what should and shouldn’t be included on the ballot before they agreed to send it to voters.
The painful journey of getting from Point A to Point B didn’t end with the ballot’s passage in 1993. City leaders had some pretty strong notions when it came to configuration of the Bricktown Canal (it was originally to be built in three segments, not two, making for a much shorter boat ride), improvements to the convention center (they originally envisioned tearing out the old Myriad arena – which would have complicated efforts to attract NCAA and Big 12 basketball tournaments), and other aspects of the nine projects. But they kept an open mind in moving forward, even eventually acknowledging that a plan pitched by bitter nemesis Moshe Tal to lengthen the northern stretch of the canal was a good one.
I recall when MAPS a dirty word, when the projects were widely despised and ridiculed as a boondoggle. I remember when city leaders came to regret early giddy promises of quick construction and completion of various projects. “Over budget” and “behind schedule” became the norm in dozens of stories written by Jack and I.
Some even suggesting “shelving” the arena. Kirk Humphreys, who succeeded Ron Norick as mayor, insisted on fulfilling promises to voters. Consensus building once again involved seeking support by community leaders for a six month extension of the MAPS tax to finish the projects “right.”
Voters approved the extension overwhelmingly. Slowly, but surely, the projects opened and public perception of MAPS, and of downtown, and finally of the city as a whole, was on the definite upswing. When the MAPS tax expired, Humphreys led the successful campaign to create a MAPS for Kids tax to overhaul city schools. Once again, the process involved a lot of behind the scenes consensus building where all the major constituencies at least felt as if their ideas and arguments had a full hearing even if they weren’t incorporated into the projects.
By the time Mick Cornett was elected mayor, he had a lot to work with. And he used his predecessors’ legacy to lure an NBA team to town and major events to the Oklahoma River. He wasn’t alone; with people wanting to once again live, work and play downtown – to experience urban life in Oklahoma City – the market was set for developers and entrepreneurs to build up the sort of retail, housing and entertainment that had been mising for decades.
And that, my friends, leaves us at Point B.