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Downtown Oklahoma City revival is marked by desperation, doubt, struggles

Oklahoma City, embarrassed by missteps and misfortune, at times without hope, took that despair and made a big play for a better future.
by Steve Lackmeyer Published: June 13, 2012

Editor's note: This week, Business Writer Steve Lackmeyer refocuses his OKC Central column for a series looking at Oklahoma City's revival. The column continues Thursday, Friday and Sunday.

With Oklahoma City euphoric with its arrival in the NBA Finals and the local economy grabbing national headlines, it's easy to forget in the late 1980s this city wasn't just hit by an economic slump or recession — it was a virtual depression.

At the peak of the early 1980s oil boom, Oklahoma boasted 975 active drilling rigs in 1981 — a figure that plummeted to 161 five years later.

Petroleum engineers were working as janitors. I knew a former trucking company executive who took a job answering phones at Hertz. Many families left Oklahoma City altogether, hoping to find better opportunities elsewhere.

Oklahoma City's corporate base was dying. City Hall struggled to keep up with a record number of boarded-up homes. College professors were instructing students to seek opportunities out of state — advice I saw heeded more often than not.

When Ron Norick was elected mayor in 1987, he faced the daunting task of bringing the city back from the grave. The ambitious effort by the previous generation of civic leaders to raze downtown and rebuild it at the guidance of renowned architect I.M. Pei had stalled, leaving the urban core an embarrassment with large open spaces in the heart of the city.

That pain, that embarrassment, the despair and feeling of hopeless — looking back, it was ultimately all in Oklahoma City's best interest. The situation was so desperate that nothing less than a heroic, bold and unprecedented effort would change history.

Norick teamed with the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber and attempted the same trick tried by so many other communities — buy some jobs. Residents who shared Norick's urgency in turning things around repeatedly voted for incentives packages to persuade airlines and other industries to open maintenance plants with thousands of new high-paying jobs.

The companies, including American and United Airlines, famously said “no.” Oklahoma City's bid was top-notch, but the companies saw little life in the community to keep their workers happy.

What happened next — the Metropolitan Area Projects (MAPS) campaign — now ranks with the April 22, 1889, Land Run and the move of the state seal to the Huckins Hotel as key historic moments for Oklahoma City. Norick looked at one rival city, Indianapolis, and saw why it beat Oklahoma City in the competition for the United Airlines plant. Indianapolis was a lively community, with a vibrant downtown and amenities that gave its residents pride in their hometown.

For the previous half-century, Oklahoma City's direction was controlled by City Hall or the city fathers who met weekly in the Beacon Club. Despite the best of intentions, it was an either-or situation with one group or the other calling the shots.

Norick faced an increasingly desperate situation — a crumbling convention center, minor league ballpark and performing arts hall. The Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, meanwhile, was getting serious about pitching a dream ballot to voters that officials believed would give the city a better shot at making the city more attractive for residents and prospective employers.

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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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