Roy Williams is president and CEO of the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce, and it is clearly a job he likes.
OKC, as the city of 580,000 people is known, is booming, which makes talking about the future a lot easier than it would be if the city were facing the sorts of problems it had two decades ago.
The only thing Williams has to apologize for now is the difficulty getting around parts of downtown because of all the public and private construction going on.
But you can tell he doesn’t really mean it.
Because of its success at downtown revitalization, OKC has become a mecca for other cities – including El Paso – wanting to see how it has come so far since 1993.
That’s when the city began fighting to turn around an economy wrecked by the oil bust of the late 1980s, a downtown the mayor at the time pronounced dead, and a school system that voters had given up on.
OKC did it with a series of three massive, revitalization projects known as Metropolitan Area Projects, or MAPS, all approved by voters along the way and funded without debt by a one-cent increase in the city’s sales tax.
It all started with a baseball stadium the city built for its Triple-A team, the RedHawks, in a dilapidated warehouse district – not unlike El Paso’s Union Plaza – that became known and famous as Bricktown.
“The baseball stadium was the thing that turned the corner on MAPS and made MAPS successful, because it was the opening of the baseball stadium when people said, ‘Oh, my God, this is really for real,’ ” Williams said.
He has headed the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce since 2004 and was its executive vice president of economic development for two years before that. He’s a graduate of Texas Lutheran University and holds a MBA from Sam Houston State University.
Williams happens to be good friends with his counterpart at the El Paso Greater Chamber of Commerce, Richard Dayoub, who will be leading a delegation of El Paso officials and business leaders to Oklahoma City next month.
Like others before them, the El Paso delegation will likely be awed by what they find and, perhaps, envious of the trust of OKC voters who have said “yes” to three huge MAPS propositions and several others totaling more than $3 billion in the past 19 years.
El Paso Inc. traveled to Oklahoma City earlier this month and met first with Williams to talk about downtown baseball and revitalization.
Q: How many cities besides El Paso are looking at Oklahoma City’s downtown as a possible model for their own revitalization plans?
We’re working with six right now.
Q: But they’re not all looking at baseball, because there aren’t that many teams floating around, right?
No, they’re looking at all kinds of stuff. They all come here for different purposes.
Q: Can you name a few and say what they’re looking at?
We’ve got Louisville, Ky., coming real soon and they’re looking at the transformation that has taken place in downtown development, Project 180, sort of all the inner city kinds of things. They’ll probably be bringing 130 people.
We had Waco come not long ago, and we just had Lubbock. Albuquerque and Colorado Springs came last year, and the year before we had Corpus Christi. That’s a great indication when people want to come see what you’re doing instead of you going to see what somebody else is doing.
We also have Boise, Columbus, Ga., Mobile, El Paso and Evanston, Ind., coming. We just had Shreveport. We’ve had Topeka, Kan., three times.
Q: It seems you have your own little industry here in terms of helping other cities, though I don’t know how much that helps you.
What precipitated a lot of this was we hosted the U.S. Conference of Mayors several years ago, so we had 1,000 mayors in town and they got to see what was going on here. and I think a lot of them went home thinking “Wow, this is happening. Is there anything we can learn?”
Q How important, really, was baseball to your revitalization?
The baseball stadium was the thing that turned the corner on MAPS and made MAPS successful, because it was the opening of the baseball stadium when people said, “Oh, my God, this is really for real.” It was the first major project of the first MAPS, and people did not really know what that thing was going to look like. When they saw the quality of it and the location of it, it was like all of a sudden the tide turned and people said MAPS is something special.
Q: What are you looking at these days? What’s next?
Right now, we’re looking at cities to see how they have branded themselves. We’re also very interested in continuing the redevelopment of downtown. We’re also trying to learn how you leverage major public projects with our eight upcoming projects with MAPS.
The perfect example is if you’re building a transit system, how can you use that as an incentive for new development or redevelopment as opposed to just building transit?
Q: You’re talking about the planned railed trolley system?
Yes, the steel-wheeled trolleys. If you’re going to build a $130-million central park, what kind of development do you want around it? We’re going to build a convention center. How do you leverage a convention hotel in conjunction with that?
Q: How many hotels do you have going up now?
We’ve got one under construction and three or four more getting ready to break ground downtown. We’ve got some boutique hotels that are also being redeveloped – old hotels that have been closed that are being redone, like the Colcord was.
Q: Other office buildings and residential?
Between the Colcord and Sheridan hotels is a 100,000-square-foot building with a garage on top. It just changed hands and is going to go through a total redevelopment, so it’s yet another block downtown that’s being redone.
There’s also a lot of housing and retail construction north of Bricktown. You can see outside our window that Sandridge Energy has done a $100-million renovation of a part of their office complex and constructing new high-rise offices.
Q: It seems a little mind-boggling to have all this going on at the same time.
It is. There’s another thing going on too, Project 180. It’s 180 acres downtown, 56 square blocks we’re tearing out. This is the total revitalization of downtown. It’s tearing out all the streets, all the infrastructure, putting all new infrastructure in, all new streets, sidewalks, lighting, landscaping, parking, all that.
And it’s all free because it’s all being paid for by a TIF (tax increment finance district) on the Devon building.
Q: How much will Project 180 cost?
A little over $100 million. The interesting thing here when you go back and look at the first MAPS and all the others, the only tax increase was the first 1 percent sales tax. The rest were just renewals. So we never increased taxes. We kept them the same.
Concurrently with that though in 2007, we passed a city bond issue of $835 million, which was not a tax increase.
Q: How do you float an $835-million bond issue and not raise property taxes to make the payments?
We had bond capacity with the existing revenue stream, so we didn’t have to raise taxes. Taxes stayed the same.
Q: You mean you paid off previous bonds. Like paying down the Visa card and then charging more without having to increase your monthly payment?
That’s correct. The city has maintained its Triple-A bond rating in the whole process and is one of few cities that have that kind of rating. At the same time, we passed a quarter of a billion dollar school bond issue, which did not raise taxes, to build 46 gymnasiums in all of our middle schools.
Then, we passed a $55-million county bond issue to buy a vacant General Motors manufacturing facility and give it to the Tinker Air Force Base, which, in turn, created about 2,000 jobs.
Q: Why did you do that?
To expand and grow the air base. We just gave it to them, and they now have more employees in it than General Motors did and at higher wages. These were all engineers, assembly people. It’s 3.8-million square feet of Class A manufacturing space. They have retrofitted and grown it. They do engine test cells, modifications, maintenance, repair and overall facilities.
Q: You have hundreds of millions of tax dollars flying left and right, and through it all the public has kept the faith, it appears.
The public here, the voters, have been very willing to put their money into these kinds of economic development projects.
The other thing, too, about the $835-million city bond issue that we did back in ’07 is there are 11 different components of it.
The voters had to vote thumbs up or thumbs down on each one of the 11. They passed all of them. The one that passed with the greatest percentage of the vote was 89 percent. The one that passed with the worst was 79 percent.
Q: What passed with 89 percent?
I think it was citywide street repair, and it was about $500 million.
Q: And 79 percent?
That was a $75-million incentive fund, and it passed four to one.
So, Oklahoma City has a $75 million incentive fund to recruit business. It’s overseen by an economic development trust that was created. So, we’re one of very few cities that has a set-aside for business recruitment.
This is cash, and the city can use that cash to fund infrastructure or it can write a check to a company that’s coming to town. Every state does this. Gov. Rick Perry has a quarter of a billion he doles out every year.
Q: The city has come a long way since this all started with MAPS 1.
We’ve passed $3.1 billion in public initiatives in the last 20 years, and that has leveraged another $5 billion or so of private money.
Q: The most remarkable MAPS project was MAPS for Kids in 1998 when the city got voter approval to spend $700 million on schools. But the city didn’t just hand it over, right?
Yes. I think that’s why we’ve had so much success. All this has been transparent. All of it has delivered exactly what the voters were told it would.
It’s all been on budget, on time, no scandals, no misappropriations of funds, nobody’s gone to jail or been indicted, which is pretty unusual.
Q: You’ve obviously been reading our newspapers.
The other interesting thing about our school bond issue or the whole MAPS for kids was the city created an entity to oversee that $700 million.
In essence, the city built the schools, not the school district. Then, they turned the keys over to the school district.
Q: I’ve read that people were leaving Oklahoma City to get away from the schools. Why was that?
We hadn’t passed a school bond issue in 40 years. There was no trust in our elected officials on the school board, so the voters said, “We’re not going to give you any money because you’re going to screw it up.” Our schools deteriorated as a result.
The quality of the facilities went down, the bus system went down, curriculum went down, everything went down. We said we’ve got to save our schools and that is why the investment was made to turn things around.
Q: So the city built new schools. What’s been done about the trust problem with the people elected to run them?
We changed state law so we could elect the president of the school board like we do our mayor, at large, and not from the ranks of the school board.
As a result, we got a corporate CEO to head up the school district. The president and CEO of Sonic Drive-In ran and became the president of our school board. We got him elected when we passed MAPS for Kids.
Q: What difference has that investment in schools made? Have the quality of elected school trustees and education improved?
We haven’t solved the problem because no major urban city can say they have fixed their education system. But it was just in the paper this week that our test scores are beginning to improve.
The typical plight of urban school districts is that the affluent have moved out and as a result the property tax situation and your inner-city school ends up being minorities, low income, kind of all those problem children. And we’ve got 1,300 homeless children in our public schools. So the Oklahoma public schools really have all the bad things that a school district can have.
We’re getting ready to build a downtown school, which will be a co-charter school – co-chartered by the school district and a private entity – which is a weird thing. We’re trying to provide school facilities for the children of people who work downtown but who don’t necessarily live downtown.
Q: What about the growing downtown population, which I understand is around 7,800 people now.
That group will have access to this, but we also want a percentage of it for people outside downtown. What we’re seeing now is a lot of interest in coming back to Oklahoma City and not all this flight to the suburbs, because we’ve been able to create some really good educational institutions.
Q: That are different from regular schools? How?
We have one school about 16 blocks from here called Classen School for Advanced Studies, and it’s basically a magnet school with 10 applications for every spot.
We also have the Oklahoma School of Science and Math downtown that’s a public boarding school for juniors and seniors. It’s called OSSM (pronounced awesome). It’s the brightest kids from all over the state who apply to come here. And it’s the largest single supplier of high school to Harvard University in the United States.
Q: A public boarding school?
Yeah, and when they’re done, these kids can go anywhere they want on full academic scholarship.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.