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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

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.

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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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