Local observers say they're a bit surprised by a new Brookings Institution report that indicates that Oklahoma City's urban core lost more than 6,000 jobs this past decade, one of 91 of the country's largest metro areas that saw a loss of downtown employment.
Real estate brokers say the downtown office market occupancy rate is at it's highest level in 30 years and note downtown is home to several thriving companies not present a few years ago. But a new report paints a different picture.
The study by the Brookings Institution, “Job Sprawl Stalls: The Great Recession and Metropolitan Employment Location,” documents the impact of the Great Recession on where jobs are located today in America and charts the shift in employment over three time periods between 2000 and 2010.
While the Great Recession stalled the outward shift of employment — often called “job sprawl” — by 2010, nearly twice the share of jobs (43 percent) were located at least 10 miles away from downtown as within three miles of a central business district (23 percent).
The study shows that Oklahoma City between 2000 and 2010 experienced a job drop of 2.4 percent within three miles of the central business district, a drop of 4.8 percent three to 10 miles of the central business district, and an increase of 7.2 percent from 10 to 35 miles away from the central business district.
Oklahoma City, which spans 622 square miles, experienced the sixth-largest increase in outer-ring share of employment, the report said.
‘Loss' is questioned
Elizabeth Kneebone, author of the report and fellow at Brookings, said the Great Recession of 2008-2009 slowed the gap both locally and nationally. But she notes that even during the recession, downtown Oklahoma City lost about 3 percent in employment while the loss in the outer ring stood at 1 percent.
“In the pre-recession period from 2007 to 2000, the region was growing, adding employment overall,” Kneebone said. “And the core shed jobs slightly … That's what was fueling the overall shift to jobs to the outer ring.”
Jane Jenkins, president of Downtown Oklahoma City Inc., and Blair Humphreys, executive director of the Institute for Quality Communities at the University of Oklahoma, don't question the census data used by Kneebone, but they're uncertain as to where the 6,000 job losses took place.
“I don't think we've seen a loss,” Jenkins said. “This measures from 2000 to 2010. And we seen tremendous growth between 2010 and 2013, especially downtown. So this wouldn't reflect all the growth of Devon Energy, SandRidge Energy or Continental Resources.”
Jenkins, who read the study, noted it shows Oklahoma City has 44.6 percent of its employment within 10 miles of the urban core — 10 points above the national average.
“Even though we have a sprawling community, the jobs center is pretty well contained,” Jenkins said.
Kneebone responds that the picture isn't as rosy when comparing Oklahoma City to smaller metropolitan areas on the list. She adds that only 16 percent of employment outside Oklahoma City's urban core is in densely developed areas.
Is it a true picture?
Humphreys suspects the data falls into a timeline that doesn't represent the true trend of changes in Oklahoma City's urban core. He noted that the city's Metropolitan Area Projects didn't get fully underway until the late 1990s, and the impact of such changes were staggered over the next several years.
The only major job loss he could recall were the few hundred jobs lost when Kerr-McGee was acquired in 2006 by Houston-based Anadarko Petroleum.
“This study does a good job at catching something that is happening at a national level,” Humphreys said. “But it doesn't appreciate the nuances of what is happening in Oklahoma City today. It shows us losing 6,000 jobs within three miles of downtown. You can ask brokers — there is no way we've lost 6,000. But keep in mind the last three years have been really good for downtown.”
The employment bounce includes expansion of the Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, Devon Energy and SandRidge Energy, and the relocation of Continental Resources from Enid. Smaller firms ranging from BlueKnight Energy and Saxum, both with about 30 employees, with many smaller creative and energy firms, also have relocated downtown in the past few years.
Saxum CEO Renzi Stone believes the influx of employment into the urban core is going to continue to grow, and not drop as suggested by the Brookings report.
Saxum made the move to an address along downtown's Automobile Alley in February 2011, from the Waterford office park at NW 63 and Western, considered to be one of the city's most exclusive suburban addresses.
“In 2004, when we moved into the Waterford, it was a vanity address,” Stone said. “It was the main reason we moved there. As the company grew and established, it was less about vanity of address and more about function of the work that we do. I wanted to be where the action was.”
Downtown, Stone said, met those goals.
Kneebone said her studies do not see a reversal in the trend — unless policy decisions ensue.
The ramifications she lists include whether the workforce can access growing employment, the availability of public transit and increases in traffic congestion.
“Building a healthy and sustainable regional economy is not just about growing jobs, but also about where those jobs locate,” Kneebone said.
“It's possible a region may see growth in the urban core as in the outer ring,” Kneebone said. “The question is; ‘how is that happening?' Growing outward isn't necessarily a negative in and of its own. But the challenge is to answer how is that happening — is it in a low density, spread-out way? How do you connect those jobs with transit? And if transit isn't able to reach those jobs, then you have more people driving, more traffic congestion.”
Humphreys believes Oklahoma City is making some of the policy decisions that may address those concerns — but agrees many challenges lie ahead.
He cites the MAPS initiatives, the discussion of walkability, and encouragement of urban infill development as some of the steps being taken by civic leadership over the past several years.
“There is no doubt Oklahoma City continues to sprawl,” Humphreys said. “But while we are still building out, we are also building up and filling in.”
This study does a good job at catching something that is happening at a national level. But it doesn't appreciate the nuances of what is happening in Oklahoma City today. It shows us losing 6,000 jobs within three miles of downtown. You can ask brokers — there is no way we've lost 6,000. But keep in mind the last three years have been really good for downtown.”
Executive director of the Institute for Quality Communities at the University of Oklahoma