The downtown tax increment finance district, which has typically been used to assist private developments, is set to help the Oklahoma City Public Schools district create a new administrative headquarters and a clinic at Emerson High School, and provide a long-needed modernization of the Capitol Hill Library.
Tax increment financing districts are created by the Oklahoma City Council and allow for increases in property taxes, known as increments, to be reinvested back into the area. The downtown district to date has allocated $75.2 million for projects ranging from garages for apartment complexes, landscaping, infrastructure and street improvements.
The downtown district also includes money budgeted for participating taxing entities, including the Metropolitan Library System, Oklahoma County, Oklahoma City Public Schools and Career Tech.
Dave Lopez, outgoing interim schools superintendent, thanked the committee tasked with overseeing the district for previously approving an allocation toward building the John W. Rex Elementary under construction downtown.
Lopez on Wednesday won unanimous approval for $1.5 million, which included about $1 million to assist in renovation of an office building at 615 N Classen Blvd. into the district’s new headquarters and $337,000 toward construction of a medical clinic at Emerson Alternative School, 715 N Walker Ave.
Lopez told the board he looked at sites for a headquarters outside the TIF district and also weighed new construction. He said both options were more expensive than buying the former bank building at 615 N Classen. Remaining at the current location, Lopez said, was not an option.
“It’s inefficient and built a century ago,” Lopez said, adding it is also in bad shape and too large for the schools operation. “For all those reasons, it became time to look for a new property.”
Lopez told the committee previous plans called for building the clinic in the school’s boiler room, but it was deemed inappropriate for young moms and moms to be. The amended plans now call for a stand-alone clinic on the school’s campus.
Emerson, he added, is an “important” school that serves students with special needs.
“It’s where students who have to have a different learning model, not always for behavior, are there, and it’s where we have our young moms,” Lopez said.
Lopez also asked for $90,000 for half of the cost of fencing and landscaping addition at Emerson similar to what was erected by St. Anthony Hospital around its parking lots, and a similar amount for such improvements around the new schools headquarters.
“Typically, it would be a chain link fence,” Lopez said. “But with all that is going on in these neighborhoods, we didn’t think that would be most appropriate.”
The requests were unanimously approved by the TIF committee, which is led by former Mayor Ron Norick and consists of representatives of city schools, libraries, the city, county and CareerTech.
The committee also unanimously approved a $1 million request by the Metropolitan Library System for improvements to the Capitol Hill Library, 334 SW 26, and surprised library Director Donna Morris by awarding another $160,000 to cover the remainder of a reported shortfall in the project budget.
Morris told the committee the two-story library has not undergone significant upgrades since it opened in 1951. Morris said the library was initially built with no parking, and was serving a very different neighborhood 60 years ago.
“We had a John A. Brown’s, a Penney’s, a Katz Drug Store — it was a very vibrant area,” Morris said. “But it changed a lot. There isn’t as much demand for books as there was. But there is a big demand for computers. It’s very busy. Those people are filling out job applications, resumes, assist applications. We have a large Hispanic population in there and we have a Hispanic area. We have kids who come in, need help with their homework, and we’ve created a special space for them.”
Morris said the building is in “need of serious work,” with an unreliable elevator, electrical system that doesn’t meet code, and energy inefficient windows.
Library system helps
The library system is paying for some repairs, using money budgeted and raised through prior bond issues. Space for additional parking also has been acquired.
“So many things are not possible with the money we have,” Morris said. She added even with the requested $1 million allocation, designers were looking for ways to cut costs to bring the project within budget.
“I’d just as soon fund all of it, $1.16 million,” Norick responded. “Let’s give you what you need so you don’t need to skimp. We have the money, and libraries are one of the recipients of this whole thing. Let the designers do the value engineering and maybe you’ll have the money for more computers or whatever else you will need.”