Editor's note: Today's regular OKC Central column has been refocused for a weeklong series looking at Oklahoma City's revival.
The story of how the NBA arrived in Oklahoma City, first with the temporary relocation of the New Orleans Hornets and then the arrival of the Thunder, has been told quite a bit the past couple of weeks.
Often lost in current conversations is the role played by Kirk Humphreys, a virtual unknown who rallied a weary city to double the bet taken with the original Metropolitan Area Projects and build the arena that is now home to the Thunder.
Back in 1998, the arena that is a major contributor to Oklahoma City's current success was very much in doubt. Looking back, it's fair to say that if Humphreys hadn't been elected, the NBA today would just be a fantasy.
The city's Metropolitan Area Projects was an unprecedented effort not just for Oklahoma City, but for anywhere in the country. Nine major capital improvements, including the arena, were all to be built without debt.
It was well-intentioned, but by 1998, even a patchwork of proposed seat surcharges for a reconstructed Civic Center Music Hall and the prospect of raising money through the sale of naming rights couldn't bridge the widening funding gap.
As it was, some other projects, most notably a new downtown home for the city's art museum, were cut from the ballot before it went to voters. In 1998, with Mayor Ron Norick stepping down after 11 years in office, the biggest names running to take the seat advocated shelving the arena. The early front-runners all agreed that without any prospects for a major league tenant, a new arena wasn't needed and the old 13,500-seat Myriad Arena would suffice for the foreseeable future.
Humphreys entered the race just before the filing deadline. He ran as the candidate suggesting other ways could be found to “fix MAPS right,” though he purposely remained vague on the finer details.
Once elected, Humphreys began to push through a plan that called for the city to finish the MAPS projects as promised. With the MAPS penny sales tax about to expire, Humphreys asked voters to discard the patchwork of budget fixes, project cuts and the elimination of the arena, and instead fix everything with a six-month extension of the tax.
With support from the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, Humphreys began his pitch first with a skeptical city council, and then with voters. His timing was helped quite a bit by the opening of the ballpark, which earned rave reviews from residents and gave them hope their money might have been well spent.
The extension passed by a bigger margin than the original MAPS ballot. Glimmers of hope emerged that downtown Oklahoma City was truly in the midst of a transformation. Bricktown was bustling with more than two dozen restaurants, bars and clubs. A Texas developer saw enough of a revival to take a chance on building apartments on empty lots in Deep Deuce, just north of Bricktown — even though it required a gamble that surrounding boarded-up buildings would eventually be redeveloped.
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.