Officials from cities across the country often come to Oklahoma City to study the renaissance that started with the original MAPS tax vote. But that doesn't mean the city can't learn from other places that are a few steps ahead on the path local leaders want to follow.
Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett hosted his annual development roundtable Wednesday at the Cox Convention Center downtown, and one of the featured speakers was his counterpart from Utah's largest city. Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker hails from a town that has already seen the fruits of labor that Oklahoma City is currently undertaking, like the MAPS 3 modern streetcar that will serve downtown and parts of the surrounding area.
Salt Lake City's streetcar and its integration with a light commuter rail system serving outlying areas of the city and suburbs was particularly important to spurring private development, Becker said. Long-range plans for central Oklahoma have long considered a similar system here to help combat issues of urban sprawl.
“I think Salt Lake City can be a great role model for us, and a city we really need to take a close look at,” Cornett said. “What they've done with rail, and creating a great urban center for that region, I think are a couple of steps that Oklahoma City can learn from.”
Growth follows transit
Salt Lake City used to have the same empty downtown on evenings and weekends once lamented by Oklahoma City leaders before Bricktown, Becker said. But the linked rail and streetcar system helped inspire growth that also included people moving to downtown Salt Lake City about as fast as the city could handle.
“Our ridership has doubled projections,” Becker said. “It's making a huge difference in both where people concentrate their economic investments, but also in relieving congestion and providing ... a pretty clear path to what our future of surface transportation will be.”
The progressive efforts for modern, sustainable redevelopment with a nod to the rich histories of both cities stand out in states that are known to be among the most politically conservative in the country. That could help Oklahoma City residents be more willing to look to Salt Lake City for direction, Becker said.
“On the other hand, our urban issues aren't ideological. We want a vibrant core to our region,” Becker said. “We want a very active downtown. We want a place where people want to come and do things and live and play and work.”
The roundtable was a five-hour meeting in a convention center ballroom and was attended by many of the city's business and public service luminaries. Devon Energy Corp. Executive Chairman Larry Nichols was honored with the mayor's Award for Outstanding Development in recognition for the impact on the city from the construction of the Devon Energy Center, the most expensive private construction project in state history.
Other speakers at the event included MAPS 3 Citizen Advisory Board Chairman Tom McDaniel, former Mayor Kirk Humphreys and an Austin, Texas, city employee who oversees the development of a mixed-use community on the site of an old airport near downtown.
Cornett addressed the crowd in his own keynote address near the end of the event. He highlighted the various successes in Oklahoma City over the last several years — particularly the impact of the Thunder, which was a common theme throughout the event as the speakers celebrated the team's success and how it has reshaped the image of the city.
Six other cities currently have meetings set up to come to Oklahoma City to study the region's success, following a long line of civic leaders from across the country in recent years. As Cornett took stock of the developments that have ignited such interest, he said city residents should not forget the 1980s oil bust, savings and loan scandal and other scars that inspired the city to make the changes other cities want to learn from.
“At the end of the day, all of the good things that are happening are things that we deserve,” Cornett said. “We've seen the other side.”