OKC: You Are At Tipping Point

Helen Grant

Look. I happen to be particularly enamored with Oklahoma City. And the city is on an upward trajectory in more ways than one. Remember this when you go into the polling booth on March 4th.

This is a city where people voted for the MAPS programs. This is a city that also came out to vote for both Oklahoma City councilman Ed Shadid and Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett. This is a city that shut down the festering crack den that was the downtown area because enough people believed in a dream for a better place. It galvanized them to vote for measures to rehabilitate the city. And I’m happy the people in Oklahoma City did this, truly. Because in specific areas of Oklahoma City the effort to grow business and bring forth prosperity is clearly bearing fruit. Downtown has become a mini-oasis in the middle of this windswept prairie land. And tomorrow when I’m sitting in the “State of the Plaza” meeting, I expect to hear good news about growth and development.

I’m also not entirely immune to propaganda, so when I saw that “City on the Rise” video last year, I think I fell in love all over again with Oklahoma City. Even as I was rolling my eyes. I know of its past and current ills, but hands down OKC is my favorite place in Oklahoma. I like other cities, but my heart is not with the others like it is here. I feel there is so much potential still waiting to be tapped. And this potential isn’t “business as usual.” When the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce promotes OKC as place where “innovation” can happen, we need to remember that “innovation” can come in various forms, and sometimes from unexpected places.

I feel like in another 10 years more amazing transformation could take place. The quality of life could go up exponentially for many people. I move around the OKC metro, I also travel as far North as Tulsa and as far South as Lawton, more than a few times throughout the year. And you know what folks, these other places are not Oklahoma City by a long shot!

 

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Image created by: Bennett Berry,  www.welcomtoloudcity.com

 

My future is tied up in OKC’s ability to attract and keep people like me and retain people like you for the long run. People who care as much as I do about what happens next. They care so much that they’ve been following the news of growing pains and the refusal of the mayor to debate. They’ve been reading discussion threads about the directions this city could take, talking to business owners in their community, co-workers, and getting a general feel for this mayoral election.

Don’t let the trolls tell you that you’re not on the team for daring to ask questions about the next phase of economic growth and renovation. MAPS 3 projects are coming online now, but what’s going on with the funding to maintain these projects? What will it cost to ensure they work at optimal levels? That is to say, if you bring people in from other places because you’ve invited them to “come be a part of a city on the rise,” like Chicago (I didn’t even leave the Midwest for this example), and take them to the Sante Fe Depot and the bus stops as they are now, they’re not going to be impressed if it’s not running as well or better than the public transportation in their home city. Are there people on board for the maintenance and upkeep right now?  If so, who are they? Why were they chosen? Is the city absolutely certain this board they’ve assembled is stacked with the best people for the job?

These would be the types of questions Mayor Mick Cornett could address in a debate were he to show up to one. I’m not trying to tear him down, for the record. I believe supporters on either side should want to see their candidate clearly articulate a plan for the next phase of growth and development as well as address what measures are being adopted to fight blight and crime.

 

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I snapped this pic the day Mick Cornett and others took the podium during the open house at the Sante Fe Train Depot. There is still a ways to go between concept and execution.

 

To be clear Mick Cornett’s challenger, Ed Shadid, more or less raised this line of questioning: “what kind of dedicated funding plan is in place for these projects?”

But the other questions came from me, asking as a concerned citizen, “Who is running this system, or who will be chosen to run it if the actual managerial staff hasn’t been fully assembled yet? Who is OKC looking for when it comes to staffing these jobs?”

It bears mentioning that 5-6 directors, like the city’s former transportation director, have left their positions. I’m working to get more information about them and perhaps a quote as to why they would leave a “city on the rise.” In the case of Rick Cain, former transportation director, it’s the standard “I can afford to retire,” but somewhere in the usual list of reasons there’s a plain truth.

“We poorly serve this city,” he [Cain] said, referring to OKC’s large geographic area and the lack of buses. “The city can’t grow the system it wants solely out of the general fund. They must find a dedicated funding source for transit.”

His comment hits at the heart of an ongoing debate involving a potential regional transit system that could include buses, modern streetcars and light rail.

“How do we create this system?

How do we finance it? How is it governed? You have to have multiple partners who are paying for it,” he said.

Today, an estimated 90 percent of bus riders are transit dependent. They have no other transportation.

While the number of buses in the transit fleet hasn’t increased in the last decade, they are a bit newer, cleaner and more efficient.”

I mean if the Chamber of Commerce’s promo video last year is to be believed, now is the time to celebrate how far the city’s come and continue that momentum as a whole. And if that is the idea, why are people just now leaving when things are getting supposedly getting good? It seems like somewhere along the way there’s been not enough momentum geared at meaningful improvements.  Or in the case of transportation, the funding is simply not there.

Inquiring minds also want to know: do these former city directors know something about the way it has all been managed so far that we don’t?

OKC is coming up on another cycle of budget appropriations. And for neighborhoods, to say nothing of business interests – not all of them are nefarious enterprises (I may be skeptical of propaganda, but I know there are good people in this world too), and in the coming days of the millennial generation we’ll probably see more conscious, forward-thinking class B corporations, but for right now let’s all recognize some corporations and businesses are more greedy than others, so deciding who will be Mayor during this next round of appropriations will matter.

“The [financial] crash played a significant role in raising awareness about our broken system,” says Katie Kerr, a spokeswoman for B Lab, which spearheaded the B Corp wave. “You can’t have a successful life if your co-workers can’t subsist on their wages or if your community is dying.”

 

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A slide obtained from the Public Safety Meeting presented Feb 13th. This is an example of a planned housing addition with both a road and a sidewalk that clearly no one is using regularly. Meanwhile on Uptown 23rd the sidewalk is sketchy at best and torn up at worst. Yet dozens of pedestrians can be seen on that stretch of  23rd throughout the day. And at the risk of rambling further, there are plans to shut down 23rd St on March 30th to have a street party that promotes the businesses and neighborhoods. It is a very popular idea, this Open Streets Day.

 

With that in mind, do you want to subsidize neighborhoods that haven’t been built or do you want to fight urban blight and remake the city into a more prosperous tapestry of homes, businesses, and districts? Because building sidewalks and roads where there aren’t even houses yet, as presented in the many public town hall meetings Shadid has hosted, noting that in some areas homes probably won’t be built for another decade, instead of fixing problems in your city like sidewalks, improving schools, and making the public safer in general is a pretty wasteful allocation of resources. Whoever is in charge of making these financial calls has to know this. You are literally sending money out of the city in the form of roads and sidewalks, who benefit no one else but the contractors and land developers who lobby for these public funds.

So to the regular folks reading this, if you look at development as depicted in the nowhere-near-finished housing addition above, take a look below. This is the pattern of blight in Oklahoma City right now. Downtown has a little within its boundary lines, but you’ll notice it is surrounded by pockets of blight.

 

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Another slide from OKC’s public safety meeting on Feb. 13th.

 

I’m not saying these special interests don’t deserve work, but why are Oklahoma City residents and businesses letting contractors and developers who have no intention of staying in the center of the city decide what percentage of public money goes towards these roads and sidewalks no one is using? I’m sure there are more than a few residents and commuters that work in the city who can think of intersections, roads, sidewalks, and public buildings that these contractors could repair or renovate. I know it might not be a fast turnaround because historical structures require more hoop jumping, but renovation is vital if blight is to be addressed. And not only that, but business owners could lobby to have their streets updated and made more friendly for pedestrian traffic. Doing so creates a space for public gatherings too, which as we’ve seen with the success of events like the H&8th Night Markets and 2nd Friday Art Walks spurs economic growth. And with H&8th’s success, witness all the new food trucks that have started operations in Oklahoma City. I promise you, you won’t find as many that originated in Norman.

If you want more monthly block parties, festivals, and the like then you have to recognize these things matter. If you want to use a bus or a street car to hop from one place to another, these things matter. If you want your children to have a better education and a safer neighborhood, these things matter. If you hope that people will start planning to live where they work so you all can have nice things to do regularly as a community, these things matter.

If you’ve been following us on our Facebook page 365 Things to Do in OKC, you’ll remember I posted an article from Atlantic Cities that cited a study from an independent research firm called Endeavor Insight. The researchers asked entrepreneurs why they built their businesses in the cities they chose. Essentially when it comes to attracting both a pool of talented workers in addition to the entrepreneurs who hire them, the finding was “…the quality of life that the educated and ambitious have come to expect – not the low-tax, favorable-regulation approach that many state and local governments tout…” were the deciding factors in which cities saw growth in their economies. Because that’s what successful entrepreneurs do: they make money, they hire people, and they boost the local economy.

“As one Seattle-based entrepreneur put it: ‘Employees want to live and work here. We knew that when we moved here and later started the company.’ ”

Oklahoma City can’t afford to let the clock run down on this election. Mick Cornett should debate Ed Shadid if he is to prove himself to the people as someone who cares about their concerns and has a clear plan for the next phase of the city’s growth. I’ve heard and read spin that debates aren’t important or that if Ed Shadid would only run a positive campaign then the Mayor would consider a debate. That, or if enough people demanded that he do it, then he’d consider it.

This is a stalling tactic.

Other mayors from Norman to Tulsa have debated their opponents no matter how negative their campaigns were. And Ed Shadid is not David Kempf, the challenger who ran against Norman Mayor Cindy Rosenthal last year. David Kempf ran a ludicrously negative attack campaign against the Rosenthal. He made inflammatory remarks on social media and brought a baseball bat with him the Public Safety Candidate Forum to “protect himself.” Another challenger in Norman’s race flat out lied and made false accusations that Rosenthal’s leadership was responsible for small business leaving Norman and that she failed to court bigger businesses like the Warren Theater. All of it so ridiculously not true.

By contrast Ed Shadid has brought up questions about OKC’s future and otherwise reached out to different demographics of the city to join him in making it a better place. And even if he were as outrageous those other guys, the fact remains that Cindy Rostenthal still beat her challengers no matter how much negativity they aimed her way.

And while Tulsa Mayor Kathy Taylor may not have won reelection, she went to all of her debates, and in her concession speech she said: “Tonight, we may have lost the vote, but I believe Tulsa won with honest and open discussion that we had about Tulsa’s future.”

No matter what happens on March 4th, if Mick Cornett wins or loses, if there is no debate, he will not be able to make the same claim as Kathy Taylor. And it will be because Oklahoma City stagnated on demanding a “honest and open discussion.” Nor will Cornett be able to say, like Cindy Rosenthal, in her acceptance speech, and after running a positive, issues-based campaign, that he too “won out over the cynicism and political attacks that so often pervade our elections.” Because if he never directly debates Shadid, he’ll never have directly addressed his “attacker.” At least not in the way Cindy Rosenthal did. And really, if Norman’s current Mayor can handle the heat and run a positive, issues-based campaign, why isn’t Cornett adopting the same winning strategy as Rosenthal?

Speaking of hot topics, bear in mind that it is estimated that around 1,000 new people move into the city every month now. Density is going up as Oklahoma City aims to attract more people to work and live here. If this mayoral debate happens, then questions into why there is an upward trend of property and violent crime should also be addressed. It is as important as hearing about dedicated funding plans for public transportation.

I’m going to leave off on two graphs presented at the Public Safety Meeting on Feb. 13th, because no matter how you look at it, indeed, OKC is a “city on the rise.” If you live and work in Oklahoma City, you deserve answers as to why amid all the boosterism and success stories, these issues persist and why they have grown.  Perhaps it is time to “Thunder Up” and demand them. Whether the public is demanding more answers from the media covering these issues or taking their concerns all the way to the Mayor’s office, we all need to recognize OKC is sitting at a tipping point. Whatever underlying issues are escalating these trends, they will not go away without dedicated, meaningful effort. Debate is only one part of the process. Voting is another.

 

Screen Shot 2014 02 21 at 4.26.13 PM 590x443 OKC: You Are At Tipping PointProperty crimes had seen decline, but the trend is going up again. Why is that? How does the Mayor plan to address this issue?
Screen Shot 2014 02 21 at 4.25.50 PM 590x442 OKC: You Are At Tipping Point
The spike in 1995 also factors in the Oklahoma City Bombing. Unlike the rest of the nation, Oklahoma City is seeing an upward trend in violent crime. Again, why is that and does the Mayor have a plan in place to address these issues?

 

 

Edit 11:35 p.m. Feb. 24th: There is another mayoral debate set for Wednesday Feb. 26th from 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. at Westminster School, 600 NW 44th St, OKC, OK. There is no cost to attend. Check the link for more details.

“Both leading candidates in this race publicly stated that this election is the most important mayoral race in several decades. *We wholeheartedly agree. All candidates have been invited….*This debate is being sponsored by several OKC neighborhood associations.”

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