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Risky bets paid off for downtown Oklahoma City

After betting on the Metropolitan Area Projects to revive a depressed Oklahoma City, civic leaders often doubled up their bets to push for an even greater urban renaissance.
by Steve Lackmeyer Published: June 14, 2012

/articleid/3684179/1/pictures/1747655">Photo - Kirk Humphreys
Kirk Humphreys

The board of the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, meanwhile, found a unifying leader with Carolyn Hill, a native daughter who had enjoyed a successful career in New York City before she returned home to take care of her ailing mother. Hill and the museum board took a gamble of their own by buying the dilapidated Centre Theater across from City Hall. The once struggling museum privately raised millions to turn the property into a landmark destination that couldn't have been realized if the project had stayed on the MAPS ballot.

Public investment along the renamed Oklahoma River south of downtown, meanwhile, attracted the interest of a fledgling rowing club led by attorney Mike Knopp who initially sought to build a modest log cabin boathouse. Again, bets were doubled up, and with the support of major companies including Chesapeake Energy Corp. and Devon Energy Corp., the small rowing club exploded into what is now one of the country's premier boathouse districts.

Humphreys, as Norick did before him, remained a stubborn ringleader who tenaciously pushed the city forward. He attracted political enemies as he sought to assemble a mix of public and private financing to replace an ugly industrial wasteland surrounding the south half of the Bricktown Canal with what is now Lower Bricktown.

From a newly expanded convention center, Humphreys looked at the dark, abandoned Skirvin hotel and realized the downtown revival could never be declared a success without addressing the historic landmark-turned-eyesore.

He faced numerous skeptics, including David Rainbolt, whose family's BancFirst was among the few major companies to commit to staying downtown when so many others gave up on the central business district. Humphreys invited Rainbolt to be a part of a Skirvin Solutions Committee and promised that he would respect the committee's decision on whether the hotel could be saved.

After months of meetings and studies, the committee, including Rainbolt, recommended the city look at a variety of options they discovered could be pursued in restoring the Skirvin — yet another risky bet. The Skirvin presented City Hall and civic leaders with some of the most challenging and worrisome financial arrangements possible in a public-private redevelopment. The gamble again paid off, and the hotel that almost got torn down is now host to the Miami Heat as it battles the Thunder for the NBA championship in an arena that almost didn't get built.

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.

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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