Charles Van Rysselberge is not a commonly recognized name in Oklahoma City, and it's likely that even some of the prominent players reshaping the city today don't know the role Van Rysselberge played in the downtown renaissance story.
Van Rysselberge was hired as president of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber in July 1993 and served in that position until 2001, when he left to take a job in Charleston, S.C.
A dozen years later, he's back in town for the first time as a guest of the American Chamber of Commerce Executives, which is honoring him with a lifetime membership. About 1,000 people are in town for the conference, which runs through Friday.
The theme is momentum. I spent two hours Sunday providing Van Rysselberge a tour of what momentum in Oklahoma City means in 2013. The tour was the least I could do for him, considering he was the first voice to stand up and insist an arena be built as part of the original MAPS when political headwinds were pushing for it to be scrapped.
Van Rysselberge was stunned by what he saw. One forgets that Deep Deuce didn't exist when Van Rysselberge left town. Devon Energy Center didn't exist. MidTown was a mess. Film Row was skid row.
We started at the Oklahoma River, which was unfinished a dozen years ago. There were no boathouses, no recreational attractions, no trails, no boats.
It was the river's Regatta Park that Van Rysselberge took a good look at the statue of the late Ray Ackerman, the veteran advertising man who helped convince Van Rysselberge to take the Oklahoma City job.
That sales job wasn't without challenges. Van Rysselberge was second in command at the Atlanta chamber, which had just won the bid for the 1996 Summer Olympics. But when Van Rysselberge saw the plans for the river makeover and Bricktown Canal, he was enchanted with the idea of being in at the beginning of a magical transformation.
What if, he asked himself at the time, he could have been involved with the start of the modern San Antonio Riverwalk that turned that city into a leading tourist destination?
Oklahoma City was not in a great place back then. But MAPS passed, battles ensued, and the downtown improvement initiative was plagued by delays and budget shortfalls.
Van Rysselberge was at home when former Councilman Guy Liebmann called him and said he was running for mayor and was preparing to call for the arena to be shelved to fix the MAPS budget.
“I felt it was the centerpiece and the avenue for which to go after a major league team,” Van Rysselberge recalled. “I disagreed. I talked to our leadership, to our board, and we came out with a seven-point resolution on why we should move forward with the arena. It passed unanimously.”
Kirk Humphreys won the 1998 race for mayor, but he had just one council ally in trying to build the arena. The chamber paid for polling and informed Humphreys that residents would support a six-month extension to provide MAPS with the extra funding needed to build the arena and “finish MAPS right.”
That ballot passed, the arena was built, and it provided an emergency home for the Hornets when New Orleans was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. The city's support for that team won Oklahoma City a permanent team, the Thunder, which is now an ongoing contender for the NBA championship.
And now you know the story behind the name Charles Van Rysselberge.