In two decades, Oklahoma City has gone from an economic basket case to a model of revitalization that other cities, including El Paso, are looking at because of its success.
Since 1993, voters there have approved three major sales-tax propositions totaling $1.8 billion. Called MAPS – for Metropolitan Area Projects – two went to revitalize downtown and a third did the same for city’s schools.
By most accounts, the key to Oklahoma City’s success at the polls has been its last three mayors and the leadership they provided.
In 1993, voters approved a $310-million package of projects financed with a 1-cent sales tax increase.
That allowed the city to move its Triple-A baseball team to a new stadium in the midst of Bricktown, which would become the downtown entertainment district.
Then in 2001, voters approved MAPS for Kids, a $770-million initiative using the city’s sales tax to repair and build schools.
The third MAPS project, totaling $777 million, was approved in 2009, on the watch of current Mayor Mick Cornett.
His first career was TV news, not business. Cornett was a reporter and anchor for 20 years before moving into politics, and he picked up an MBA along the way.
In 2001, Cornett was elected to city council by the largest margin over an incumbent in the city’s history. Then when the mayor stepped down, Cornett ran to fill the unexpired term and won with 58 percent of the vote.
In 2006, he was re-elected in a landslide – 88 percent.
The U.S. Conference of Mayors gave Cornett its City Livability Outstanding Achievement Award. Governing magazine named him its 2010 “Public Official of the Year” – the same year he came in second for the London-based City Mayor’s Foundation World Mayor Award.
The public’s massive investment in Oklahoma City has attracted private funding. In 2008, a group of Oklahoma City businessmen bought Seattle’s Supersonics basketball team and moved it into the renovated Chesapeake Energy Arena.
Last month, OKC’s Thunder played in the NBA finals, losing in game five to the Miami Heat.
El Paso Inc. caught up with Cornett between meetings recently for a telephone interview about his job, his town and what advice he has for cities like El Paso.
Q: When it comes to putting big projects to voters, how important is it for the mayor of Oklahoma City to lead?
It’s what I concentrate on. I try to use my political capital for the bigger things. I try to remember that the big thing to remember is the big thing.
Q: There are a lot of stories out there about how important the mayor was to the success of the city’s first MAPs project in 1993. Is that a tradition?
Going back in Oklahoma City’s history, you’ll see the mayor is spokesman and champion for the big campaigns. The business funds the campaigns and city hall works with them and kind of fronts the campaign. But they’re considered a mayoral initiative. Of course, it’s more than that. The business community and city council works as a team.
Q: What would you say brought the city together like that? Some say it was the Murrah Federal Building bombing.
The city may have been solidified by the bombing experience in 1995. But what you have here is a mayor and council that get along with each other and a business community that gets along with those two bodies.
Q: Do you think it’s different in other cities?
What I see in a lot of communities is that there’s a lot of finger pointing and arguing, and the people go to the polls and they just vote no because they don’t want to be the referees for the leadership.
In Oklahoma City, you see people getting along and everybody’s pulling on the same rope. It’s amazing what can get accomplished when the leadership’s aligned.
Q: Most cities, including El Paso, sell bonds to finance big projects and repay them with property taxes over 30 years. Oklahoma City uses a penny sales tax and pays as it goes on city projects. You’re in and out of it in seven to 10 years with no debt and no drag on the city budget. That sounds pretty sweet.
Yes, paying cash is very helpful, but it takes us a while to build our projects. It can be 10 years before everything gets built. Our citizens kind of like that approach.
You’re spending as you collect it, but there’s always millions that can be generating interest in the process. All the money goes to the projects. It’s a very fiscally sound approach.
The problem is it takes a long time to build out and elected officials typically want something to happen sooner rather than later, so they have something to show for it.
Q: An extra penny sales tax sounds pretty painless. Did businesses complain? Was there organized opposition to the initiatives?
Certainly there has been. The amount of organized or disorganized opposition grows with each one. The last one had opposition from our labor union.
Q: Our labor union?
Police and fire. They funded a heavily financed campaign to try and beat it. Then you have the far right that doesn’t like taxes so they oppose it. And it was in a recession, so it was hard to pass anything that had to do with a tax in 2009.
But our business community is very supportive, and the council and I worked very closely with the business community to put together a campaign. We won on Election Day but it wasn’t easy; it was pretty hard.
Q: That was a $770 million, 10-year proposition. How did it do?
It won with 54 percent.
Q: What’s the impact of private investment in your revitalization efforts?
You’ll see the entire entertainment district has been built with private money following the city’s initial investments. We put in the ballpark and the canal, and the private sector has responded with an entire entertainment district.
Q: How did Oklahoma City end up with a Triple-A baseball team, the RedHawks?
We’ve had a team for 50 years; they just played at the fair grounds. So we built the new stadium for them.
Q: Who owns the team?
They’re out-of-town owners, a group out of Ohio. They manage Chickasaw Brickyard Ballpark for us. The basic agreement is it’s theirs as long as they have a Triple-A franchise. We built it for that team, but the citizens still own it.
Q: What would you say having baseball downtown has meant?
Triple-A baseball is a great amenity that plays into the quality of life of your community. It’s a nice crowd of people who aren’t necessarily following the team in the standings, but they like to get the family out for an evening at the ballpark.
What we’ve really done is realize that the key to economic development is creating a place where people want to live. To do that, you have to do everything. It’s not just sports or the arts or affordable housing and no traffic congestion; it’s all of those things.
You’ve got to do it all, and having a sports component is very important. If we didn’t have a team, we’d be trying to get one.
Q: Why did the city decide to move the team downtown?
The key in this situation is the location. It’s now in the middle of our entertainment district. When our citizens are entertaining friends or family from out of town, probably the first place they’re going to take them is Bricktown, and one of the things they might do is go to a ball game.
But there are many family-oriented things to do in that area. So it’s a catalyst for a lot of development.
If you put your ballpark kind of on the perimeter of the city, it’s going to be a destination just for going to a game. But when you put it downtown, it can be a catalyst for a lot of other things to happen.
Our citizens are really proud of that ballpark. They paid for it and they built it. It’s a really cool stadium, one of the best in the country for minor leagues, and they like to show it off to people from out of town.
Q: What development has come in the last 10 years because of the team and ballpark?
We built the canal, too. There’s a huge variety of restaurants and bars. There’s a movie theater. There’s museums, walking paths, public art.
Q: Was there additional and significant private investment?
Well, all the museums are private. There’s no public museums in Oklahoma City, other than the state historical museum.
We’ve put in those two major destination attractions, and the private sector has come in and developed everything else. So we benefit from the tourism and the quality-of-life amenity of just having something for our people to do.
Q: What about the Chesapeake Energy Arena, where the Thunder play? What kind of private investment has the city seen from having it and an NBA team?
Chesapeake is a block away from Bricktown. The team is a great example of private-sector investment. The franchise cost $350 million. Our seven business leaders teamed up as the ownership group.
Q: How did that come about?
They bought the franchise in Seattle and ultimately moved it to Oklahoma City.
Q: Did they do it with the expectation of making a good return? It seems you’d stand a better chance of making a profit from an NBA basketball team than Triple-A baseball.
The baseball club is profitable. Triple-A baseball is really reliant on quality management. People who don’t know what they’re doing will lose a lot of money pretty fast.
But you can make a living if you get experienced people who are willing to spend money and become part of the community. Minor league baseball is not for amateurs.
Q: What about the Thunder? Did the investors expect a lot of profit, or was it more of an investment in the city?
They were buying a franchise located somewhere else. When you buy a franchise like that, there are two ways to make money: One is when you sell it and one is from the annual operating income.
Not every franchise makes money annually. Ours is profitable in Oklahoma City. It was not in Seattle. I don’t think the owners have any intentions of selling, and I don’t think they’re in it to make money. I think they’re doing it for the community.
Q: El Paso has four major investors trying to buy a Triple-A team. There is some suspicion about their motives, even though it’s generally thought that there’s not a lot of money to be made, especially in the short term, for them.
I would say that’s right. There are other ways for wealthy people to make money besides professional sports. If they’re buying a team in El Paso, they’re doing it because they want to support the community because they have other options that would be better for them.
Q: I understand you’ve been visited by officials and business people from El Paso. Do you get many visits like that?
We probably have five to 10 official visits a year, and then there’s many more that are less formal. Maybe a mayor will send a staff member to come in and look around.
Q: How important has it been to stay with the voter, not to get too far ahead of them and to let them have a say each step along the way?
It’s very important. What we’ve done is allow our citizens to decide on their level of taxation. Every time we’ve changed our property tax or sales tax, it’s been as a result of a public vote. And I think that’s very defendable.
I’m a Republican and am called into question about why I support these taxations. I feel good about it because it’s our citizens who ultimately say yes or no. If they don’t feel like they’re getting their money’s worth, they’re going to say no.
Q: What advice would you offer to cities that are considering a significant investment in downtown revitalization, and maybe sports?
I would say you need to build a consensus between the business community and the elected officials. They need to be aligned, and if you can get that consensus, I think the citizens will be willing to consider whether or not it’s reasonable. You’ve got to get everybody on the same page because these things are hard to pass.
Q: You’ve had three major propositions approved by voters since 1993. In MAPS for Kids, the city proposed using its taxing capacity to raise $770 million to modernize schools and build new ones. Why would the city do that?
The school district had no political capital; it was bankrupt. They could not pass their bond issues, and the school buildings were falling apart as a result. The city realized it wasn’t going to move forward unless the schools got better.
So we used the city’s political capital to bail out the school district. We’re rebuilding all 75 buildings in the inner city and we hand them the keys when we’re done.
At the same time, we tried to get good leadership on the school board, and they passed a couple of bond issues along the way and test scores are up a little bit.
Q: Were there legal problems that caused a public lack of confidence?
I wouldn’t say there was much of that. It was more that things appeared to have been promised and then they didn’t necessarily get built. Or it cost more than expected, and the voters weren’t getting everything they were supposed to get.
Then, you had people moving out of the district for what they perceived to be a better education somewhere else. What we were left with was people with fewer choices, people with less money.
So the bonding capacity kept going down along with the willingness of people in those demographics to vote yes. It was just a mess, and there was no way the school district was every going to pull itself out of that alone.
Q: Most cities would wait for the state to come in or something.
It was an emergency. The mayor at the time, in an act of political genius, put that MAPS for Kids structure together. What he pulled off with the school district was among the most impressive political achievements I’ve ever seen. Others have tried to duplicate it. I think New Haven, Conn., is the only community that’s been successful.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.