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Loss of Kerr-McGee, other scares failed to stop downtown Oklahoma City's momentum

The loss of Kerr-McGee as a corporate anchor once would have cratered development of downtown Oklahoma City. But the momentum created by the original Metropolitan Area Projects started in 1993 couldn't be stopped a dozen years later.
by Steve Lackmeyer Published: June 15, 2012

Editor's note: Today's regular OKC Central column has been refocused for a weeklong series looking at Oklahoma City's revival. The next column will be Sunday.

For a half-century, Kerr-McGee literally led the development of downtown Oklahoma City. Company co-founder Dean A. McGee helped shape the I.M. Pei-envisioned Urban Renewal makeover of downtown and by sheer will made the Myriad Gardens a reality.

Even after McGee's death in 1989, shortly after the gardens opened, the company's workforce of several hundred continued to keep downtown alive at a time when many other companies faded away or moved to the suburbs.

Then, in 2006, just two years after celebrating its 75th anniversary, Kerr-McGee Corp. was swallowed up by Houston-based Anadarko Petroleum Corp.

The company vanished, and its 500,000-square-foot, 29-story tower soon went dark.

Such a departure almost certainly would have been a deadly blow to downtown a decade earlier. But in 2006, the loss of Kerr-McGee barely caused a ripple in downtown's ongoing renaissance.

Momentum is a funny thing. It takes so much work and patience to get something going. Yet when the ball starts rolling, it's difficult to stop.

When the Metropolitan Area Projects ballot was passed in 1993, civic leaders predicted it would spur $140 million in private investment, yet in 2006 alone downtown development exceeded that figure. It was a wonderful time for downtown, with banks lending money on generous terms and housing being built in almost every part of the urban core.

Some housing consisted of new construction, with dozens of new for-sale homes built as part of The Hill, The Brownstones at Maywood Park, The Centennial and Block 42. Older buildings, including the old Sieber Hotel and the Park Harvey Building, were converted into apartments.

A year after Kerr-McGee's departure, the question over the future of the tower was resolved with a purchase by SandRidge Energy Inc., which announced plans to redevelop the entire complex.

A group of local investors led by Clay Bennett, meanwhile, announced plans to move their recently acquired Seattle SuperSonics to Oklahoma City. Mayor Mick Cornett easily persuaded residents to pass a temporary tax to expand the arena and complete upgrades necessary for permanent hosting of an NBA team.

In early 2008, Devon Energy confirmed planning was under way for a new skyscraper that would become the company's corporate headquarters.

It seemed as if Oklahoma City could do no wrong. Each risk taken since the advent of MAPS had paid off handsomely.

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by Steve Lackmeyer
Business Reporter
Steve Lackmeyer is a reporter and columnist 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 Metropolitan...
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Steve Lackmeyer is an award-winning business reporter and columnist who started with The Oklahoman in 1990. He has covered downtown development since 1996. He authored three books on the history of downtown Oklahoma City: “OKC Second Time Around,” “Bricktown” and “Skirvin,” and a third book on the construction of Devon Energy Center is due for release in the fall. His OKC Central column appears in The Oklahoman business section every Tuesday.

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