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Oh No, Anti-Downtown Backlash At the Ballot Box?!?

by Steve Lackmeyer Published: April 4, 2013

The headline on today’s story by William Crum about Tuesday’s city council elections might provoke such a thought – but let’s delve deeper, shall we?
Crum nails some really good issues. There is a growing concern out there about crime – especially how the city flirted with setting a new record last year in the number of homicides. The city has seen tremendous growth, and is said to be growing by 2,000 people a month. Yet the police force remains at the same level – and actually was down a bit not too long ago – as it was 20 years ago. That math, critics charge, doesn’t add up.
But let’s backup. First off, let’s note the headline is based on a comment by veteran Ward 4 City Councilman Pete White (“Emphasis on downtown Oklahoma City development takes a hit in election, council member says”). Pete was one of two council members who did not draw an opponent in this year’s election, and his track record is not one of being anti-downtown. The same can be said for Ward 3 Councilman Larry McAtee, who also drew no opponents.
Ward 7 Councilman Skip Kelly drew several opponents, and no surprise there: after getting arrested on a DUI, Kelly dismissed suggested he might have a drinking problem, and then, with another rather embarrassing arrest, Kelly had a second DUI on his hands and lingering uncertainty as to whether he might be forced off the council if convicted of felony DUI.
In a ward where pastors of large Baptist churches are civic giants, this didn’t bode well for the incumbent. Skip was hardly a big downtown booster, so does Pete White’s observation really apply to Ward 7?
Let’s move on to Ward 1. Gary Marrs held the seat for two terms and did not face any competition four years ago. Was he geared up for a three-person race? Did he face problems with voters over his support for the city’s sexual orientation policy? Was he seen as being disengaged with his ward? Was his support of downtown development an issue?
MAPS 3 implementation is not pretty right now. Questions that went unanswered (or unasked) during the campaign are now popping back up with no easy answers to be found.
What if there are not any private entities ready to take on the cost of the senior wellness centers as was assumed by the mayor and council? What if the city’s corporate and community interests don’t show an interest in forming a foundation to help operate and oversee the cost of the Core to Shore park as was assumed during the campaign? What if the city can’t obtain any federal matching funds for the streetcar system as was suggested during the campaign? A large conference hotel is held up as a critical component to a new convention center being successful but is widely acknowledged to hinge on a public subsidy of at least $50 million – so what if a city council that now has four people who were not members when MAPS 3 passed opposes such a proposition?
The MAPS 3 ballot passed over strenuous opposition despite a more diversified focus on projects throughout the city (wellness centers, trails and sidewalks). Public safety advocates questioned why MAPS 3 was being pursued as a priority over the need to put more money into staffing up the police department. And some respected civic leaders, notably Sonic CEO Cliff Hudson, cautioned against creating a MAPS 3 that might be “a tax in search of a purpose.”
How many of these concerns continued to linger in households throughout the city? Downtown advocates note its the city’s neighborhood – the one neighborhood that can be enjoyed by all residents. But it’s future, and the latest incarnation of MAPS 3, may not be as settled as some might have assumed.

NOTE: The following was written by Sonic CEO Cliff Hudson on Aug. 17, 2009, about a month before the MAPS 3 ballot was first unveiled by Mayor Mick Cornett:

It is a testament to the strength of the MAPS brand that so many in our city speculate as to the focus of a possible MAPS 3.
MAPS and MAPS for Kids were a success. They were a success because they each had a clearly defined, community building purpose and the citizens could envision the consequences for life in our city. With this filter, we should guard against the next MAPS initiative becoming an effort to build buildings, or a diffuse set of initiatives that amount to a tax in search of a purpose.
In 1993, then-Mayor Ron Norick recognized the fundamental needs of an active cultural life in our city. He and many others saw our city’s shortfall and our inability to compete for new business because of this shortfall. We addressed this with MAPS, and now our city is regularly cited for regenerating its cultural life.
In 2001, then-Mayor Kirk Humphreys recognized the fundamental needs of our core public school system. He and many others saw our city’s fundamental shortfall and realized we could never become the city we envisioned without a functional and stable urban public school system. We addressed this matter in MAPS for Kids and, while we have a ways to go on the academic front, we are on the incline now, rather than a steep decline.
With the momentum our city has achieved with these initiatives, who wouldn’t ask how we should sustain this momentum? In our business at Sonic, however, we often say there is no shortage of good ideas, only a shortage of resources. In life and in city planning, the same is also true. Our citizenry, pleased with the MAPS moniker and desirous of continued growth of our city, understandably looks to a MAPS 3 to sustain that momentum.
Lest we simply fund a few buildings, but risk achieving little community building, we should ask ourselves what core capital investment our city’s infrastructure lacks. Then we should ask whether the direction and course of our city would be redirected by a MAPS-style investment in that infrastructure.
I continue to be optimistic about the future of our city, and Sonic is as proud as ever to call Oklahoma City its home. We’re fortunate to have had the community-building effects of MAPS. We should be cautious, selective and strategic with its newest addition. If we play it right, we can move our community to another level and find Oklahoma City on everyone’s maps because of MAPS 3.

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by Steve Lackmeyer
Business Reporter
Steve Lackmeyer is a reporter, columnist and author who started his career at The Oklahoman in 1990. Since then, he has won numerous awards for his coverage, which included the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, the city's...
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