A year in the life of a city is like a game in a season for big-time college football around here. They're all big, especially when you lose one.
It will be no exception in Oklahoma City for 2013, which will be as important a year as any. Critical decisions related to MAPS 3 and other urban development projects, elections for four city council seats and an audit report on alleged impropriety in a public safety capital project are all due next year, and how things turn out will reverberate for decades.
This year has been mostly a success for Oklahoma City, with robust economic expansion and the lowest unemployment rate in the country fueling unprecedented sales tax revenue growth. And though plans for some big civic projects have proved divisive, the debate has been allowed to play out in public through many open meetings attended by crowds of engaged and vocal city residents and business owners.
So what are some of the most important things on the horizon in Oklahoma City for 2013?
The design of the downtown Oklahoma City Boulevard is likely to be finalized, and construction should begin. The boulevard's purpose and design have been the focus of a noisy debate in recent months.
Some decisions to be made in 2013, like narrowing the road from six lanes to four, seem to be formalities after a general consensus was reached after a series of public discussions. But more decisions expected to be divisive are also coming.
Chief among them will be the design of a western section of the boulevard as it passes through a complicated series of intersections at Reno and Western avenues and Classen Boulevard. Designs for sections of the boulevard in the downtown core will follow.
Advocates of a flat and narrow roadway, with a low speed limit, that is friendliest to development and pedestrians have been pitted against those who want maximized traffic efficiency in a growing downtown.
The Oklahoma City Council will likely choose its preferred design in early 2013, which will then be submitted to state Transportation Department and federal transportation authorities for ultimate approval.
City council elections
Four of the nine city council seats will be up for elections in the spring, and all four incumbents told The Oklahoman last week they will seek re-election.
Ward 1 Councilman Gary Marrs, Ward 3 Councilman Larry McAtee, Ward 4 Councilman Pete White and Ward 7 Councilman Skip Kelly will face primary elections March 5 if they're opposed, and the top two candidates in each primary will square off again April 2 if no one gets a majority in the primary.
Kelly, however, will lose his council seat if re-elected but convicted of the felony DUI charge he faces in a pending Oklahoma County District Court case. Kelly was arrested in January on suspicion of drunken driving for the second time in less than three years.
Kelly's felony charge was automatic because of a new state law, but a pending appellate case that could affect situations like Kelly's, where the defendant's first DUI conviction came before the law was enacted, has helped push back Kelly's preliminary hearing for months, set most recently for March 15.
Kelly would keep his seat if exonerated or if convicted of a misdemeanor through a plea bargain. Kelly pleaded not guilty at an early court appearance, has denied being drunk at the time of his arrest and said public judgment of him should be reserved until the case plays out.
Convention center debate
The MAPS 3 convention center will be the only MAPS 3 project to not be in the construction phase by the end of 2013, but it will still be an important year for the program's most expensive component. Consultants will release a concept study that will make recommendations on the eventual design of the convention center, and how it should fit in with the rest of the urban core.
The concept study will surely sharpen the ongoing debate about how big the convention center should be, what the event space configuration will look like, how a potential headquarters hotel would fit in and what kind of subsidy the convention center and hotel will require.
City officials also hope to finish the acquisition of the former Ford dealership site that the city council chose for the convention center. The site is west of Chesapeake Energy Arena and south of Myriad Gardens, and will also border Oklahoma City Boulevard and be across the street from the MAPS 3 park.
Civic leaders also hope the convention center will be served by the MAPS 3 streetcar, which is also in for a big year in 2013. Among other things, the city intends to finish the acquisition of the Santa Fe Train Depot for the intermodal transit hub.
State Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones is expected to finish in 2013 his office's investigation into alleged financial impropriety, and alleged efforts to cover it up, related to a public safety capital project in Oklahoma City.
Oklahoma City police Capt. Bradd Brown made a whistle-blower report that sparked the investigation. Brown alleges Kerry Wagnon, a city employee who manages the project, “misappropriated and prepaid project funds for personal gain,” and efforts to hide the impropriety from the city council reached as high as the office of City Manager Jim Couch and Assistant City Manager M.T. Berry. Wagnon, Couch and Berry have firmly denied the allegations and said they expect Jones' report to show they did nothing wrong. Brown declined to comment.
The allegations are a relative rarity in Oklahoma City, which hasn't been affected by any serious corruption scandals in recent memory.
Senior wellness centers
Perhaps the most sluggish MAPS 3 project so far has been the senior wellness centers. The MAPS 3 Citizen Advisory Board's subcommittee for the project didn't get any satisfactory bids from potential operating partners after it issued a request for proposals for the first center, and the project is now behind schedule.
Subcommittee Chairman Michael Dover and other officials remain optimistic, saying they'd rather take their time to get things right at the expense of being late than hurry through the process only to find themselves with a bad deal.
The subcommittee is expected to issue a refined request for proposals soon with an eye on selecting an operating partner in 2013. Then plans for the first senior center can come into focus, which officials hope will provide some momentum for the remaining centers.
Remaining issues include whether the centers can include aquatic elements, which were popular with voters, without a hefty subsidy, and choosing how to provide the best mix of services and activities for different demographics.