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GLIDE trip insiders: How unity of vision and an ambitious, yet fiscally conservative, taxing plan transformed Oklahoma City

by Melissa Chipman

What do you think of when you think of Oklahoma City?

Rodeos? Livestock? Do you skew a little more morbid and think of the 1994 bombing?

No matter what you think of when you think of Oklahoma City, it’s unlikely you’re conjuring ideas of a “possibility city.”

So why did Greater Louisville Inc., the Metro Chamber of Commerce, plan a trip to Oklahoma City for 90-some Louisville movers and shakers?

The 2012 Greater Louisville Idea Development Expedition (GLIDE) on Oct. 21 through Oct. 23 took these civic leaders and business people to Oklahoma City to discover why and how the city changed its spirit and its momentum dramatically in a short period of time.

We talked to two GLIDE attendees last week. Grace Simrall is the CEO of iGlass Analytics who was recently featured in our “New Establishment” List. We said she’s “exactly the kind of person econ-dev types envision when they talk about a new, prosperous and educated Louisville.” John Guthrie was granted one of two emerging leaders scholarships to attend. Guthrie is a self-employed nonprofit and marketing consultant and an advocate for neighborhoods and the arts.

Guthrie said he had the sense the trip to Oklahoma City was different from previous GLIDE trips to cities as varied as Jacksonville, Florida and Dublin, Ireland. The difference, he said, was this trip seemed primarily focused on the city’s very successful tax-and-spend program. A version of which the Fischer Administration is now advocating.

What they saw was a city where leaders embraced boldness and caution at the same time, spending wisely and efficiently to rise from the ashes.

After the boom of the late 1980′s, Oklahoma City was devastated. More than 100 banks closed. Home values dropped 150 percent. A whole generation of young people moved away.

This downtroddeness, though, was nothing new to OKC. Oklahoma City was founded on a land grab during the Land Run of 1889 and boasted a population of 10,000 homesteaders or more within hours. But these weren’t necessarily entrepreneurial go-getters; they were westward-goers who were down on their luck.

Chesapeake Energy CEO, Aubry McClendon, called by Forbes Magazine “America’s Most Reckless Billionaire” said, “We didn’t come to Oklahoma City because we were successful in Louisville. We came to Oklahoma because we were a failure in Arkansas.”

In 1992, in an effort to stem the bleeding, the city decided to pursue a United Airlines hub. They put together an amazing incentive package and did such a good job selling the plan to Oklahoma City citizens that voters happily elected to tax themselves an additional 1 percent to fund the package.

But Oklahoma City lost the bid.

To Indianapolis.

The reason?

According to United, OKC was “too ugly.”

MAPS

But the United bid had spurred a civic something, a spirit of forward momentum maybe. And from that momentum arose this idea: let’s tax ourselves again and improve our city.

And the first Metropolitan Area Projects (MAPS) was born.

MAPS is a massive redevelopment package intended to rebuild the city center and establish more activities and life to downtown. This additional 1 percent sales tax raised $2 billion for the city. The effort was so inspiring an additional $10 billion came in from the private sector.

When the first MAPS ended, a second round was proposed. And then a third. MAPS3 was launched in 2010.

And with that money, OKC has been transformed.

Simrall says, “It’s not my vision of a city. But it’s theirs, and they love it.”

The MAPS project is a cash-as-you go venture: There was no borrowing involved. No project was started before the money had been raised by the tax increase.

Unlike in Louisville, where we’re still paying for Slugger Field and haven’t even scratched the surface of paying for KFC Yum! Arena, both of which are open and operational and running on borrowed funds.

As Guthrie said, the speakers at GLIDE repeatedly stressed how fiscally conservative both Oklahoma City and the state of Oklahoma are. The cash-as-you go part of the deal has been critical to its acceptance.

But because it is a cash-as-you-go system, the citizens of OKC grew impatient quickly. They’d been taxed. The city had collected its money. But the progress came too slowly. One local television news channel had a “MAPSWatch” segment nightly to criticize the perceived bureaucratic crawl.

Snark reached an all-time high.

And then the Oklahoma City bombing occurred.

Simrall says it’s “too pat” to say the tragedy “galvanized the city.” But the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building bombing led to very raw dialogue about public spaces. Dialogue that didn’t occur behind closed doors between decision-makers.

This was raw dialogue that occurred in public.

“Does Louisville suffer a bit from Midwest niceness?” asked Simrall. “I don’t know” (which I think means yes). But she does suggest that Oklahoma City couldn’t have broken through the tragedy and moved on to positive action without those naked discussions.

The structure of MAPS reflects the conservative nature of OKC. Each of the three MAPS pushes have had a clear “sunset” for the tax increase. Each of the three MAPS have had clear goals and defined projects. And each time a MAPS was raised, it was an all-or-nothing vote; you could not approve Projects A, D, and E without also approving Projects C and B. It’s a package deal.

If Louisville could increase its taxes 1 percent, according to Simrall, that would mean around $90 million a year to the city. If the Fischer administration is making 25-year plans, imagine the kind of changes that could occur in Louisville with 25 years at $90 million a year.

Maybe you can imagine transformational, world-class projects that would change the face of Louisville. But too bad. That’s as far as you can go right now.

We can’t follow OKC’s MAPS precedent because it’s unconstitutional in the state of Kentucky to levee a local tax. And boy does Louisville have a lousy track record in Frankfort.

There’s no way the state will pass an amendment to allow for a local option state tax unless we get other communities on board.

Old Man River’s Project

OKC is a city bisected by the North Canadian River (renamed the Oklahoma River within the city limits in 2004). The North Canadian River routinely flooded, destroying neighborhoods on its banks and even the old site of the Oklahoma City Zoo. In 1940, the Army Corps of Engineers, straightened, widened and dammed the river, lowering its levels, and eventually rendering the site of the river an arid, empty drainage ditch.

Local lore says that for years, there was a line-item in the city budget to “mow the river” three times a year.

As part of MAPS 1 in 1993, the city voted to transform the ditch back into a waterway again and to create a park-like riverfront on both sides of the seven-mile stretch of the drainage ditch in the middle of the city. There was no boating tradition in OKC, no river tradition, but one citizen who had a singular vision exacted transformational change on the city.

According to a 2008 New York Times article, “Renaming the river was the idea of Ray Ackerman, an advertising executive from Oklahoma City who said he cringed whenever he flew over the ditch on his way home. Ackerman argued that the name North Canadian River would confuse out-of-towners, but the change drew grumbles from many longtime residents who worried history was being erased.”

Retired U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Ray Ackerman started the state’s largest advertising agency. Even so, Ackerman was never what you would call a “city insider.” Nevertheless, Ackerman earned the nickname “Old Man River” for advocating for the Oklahoma River before it became cool to do so.

Ackerman died last week at the age of 90. Mayor Mick Cornet said: “We owe many men and women a debt of gratitude for the MAPS program but I think Ray, in terms of the river, had a very special role, and it’s one he really, really was very proud of.”

After the project was completed, citizens were suddenly saying, “Hey, this river? – it’s pretty great for rowing.” Mark Knopp, a rowing enthusiast, led that charge after realizing that 2000 meters of the river is perfectly straight, it’s wide enough for the requisite 8 boats for racing, and the two bridges that cross the river have piers that line up directly.

Knopp quit his job as a lawyer and became the rowing coach at the Oklahoma City University, one of four area universities that began offering rowing after the river was opened.

But turning this river into a rowing mecca was never a goal. It was, as Guthrie calls it, “the happiest of accidents.”

Now USRowing works out of the Oklahoma City National High Performance Center. That means our rowing Olympians are training in one of the Plains States. Who would’ve thunk?

When I asked Simrall about the number one thing she took away from the trip, she said, “I’m going to keep my ears open and listen for our Ray Ackerman. Someone with big crazy ideas.”

Takeaways

According to Simrall, Oklahoma City’s MAPS only funded projects that were transformative and world class. MAPS didn’t fund “low-hanging fruit” or projects that guarantee success. No playing it safe. Big risks mean (and have meant) big rewards.

Because of the cost of the event, says Guthrie (roughly $2,500 per person), people from the non-profit sector and young people were not represented, or at the very least were underrepresented on the GLIDE trip. Simrall agrees we need to include more people in the conversation. While there were close to 100 people involved, even in the smaller breakout sessions, all the ideas for Louisville were ones she said she’d heard before.

And none of the ideas was as transformative as the river project has been for Oklahoma City.

But both Guthrie and Simrall suggest there was probably no way for such transformational, world-class change to occur without the MAPS tax.

Some programs could have been completed through philanthropy, says Guthrie. But maybe not to the level or as quickly as they occurred because of MAPS. It’s taken us 25 years to do Waterfront Park. With a MAPS-like program, could it have been done in ten? In five?

“The Big Four Bridge would already be done by now,” he says. “We’re all so ready to walk across that bridge.

Had OKC mismanaged MAPS1, there would have been no chance to try again, says Guthrie. Not in a such a fiscally conservative environment. But because the city and the citizens and the private sector really got behind MAPS1, the city government built a great deal of political capital. This feel-good has trickled down to other parts of the government and government agencies. The school board, for instance, had very little problem recently pushing through a bond issue because of the feel-good.

Businesses in Oklahoma City, says Simrall, used to not only pay people to relocate to OKC but also used to promise to re-relocate them elsewhere if they came to OKC and hated it.

Now, it’s a city where people choose to move.

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