OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - Oklahoma City has seen a dramatic facelift. Modern office buildings, a new concert hall, a new library, upscale urban living and a Triple-A ball park are just part of a major revitalization effort. Downtown is not the ghost town it was 20 years ago when the economy hit rock bottom and people moved away.
”It looks a lot nicer and a place people want to be around," says one young man.
Nothing has made more of a difference in the way people around the world see Oklahoma City or in the way people who live there see themselves than the Thunder of the National Basketball Association.
“We’re part of an economic conversation now that we weren’t a part of before,” notes state Senator David Holt (R-30th Dist., OK), who wrote a book on how Oklahoma City landed the NBA. “Before the NBA, we weren’t just made fun of, we were ignored, which is worse.”
Like Virginia Beach, Oklahoma City had been nothing more than a minor league sports town. Then the NBA arrived.
“I think we have a whole new list of peer cities,” Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett says. “But now when you’re on ESPN playing against Chicago, New York and Los Angeles and Houston and Portland and Salt Lake, I think there is a very superficial level of equality that you get from that association on an ESPN basis,” adds Cornett, a former sportscaster and news anchor in Oklahoma City. He says the city's seen a direct economic benefit to that type of exposure, citing the area’s unemployment rate of 4.5%.
In Hampton Roads, unemployment is 6.8%.
CEOs in Oklahoma City are finding it easier to attract top talent that drives the economy.
“When you get an NBA team, suddenly people think to themselves there must be something going on there because the NBA doesn’t pick its teams randomly,” Cornett says.
The success of the NBA in Oklahoma City is a big reason Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms says he’s determined to keep pursuing the league. Sessoms says it's more than just raising the city's profile.
“What's happening with the defense budget? What's the impact on Hampton Roads? We need to be looking for new revenue streams. We need to diversify our economy in Virginia Beach and in Hampton Roads," Sessoms believes.
Sessoms says the success of several public-private partnerships exemplifies the city’s ability to grow the economy. Development around a proposed arena at the Oceanfront would only add to that.
Today in Oklahoma City, the NBA has been a value added on a long-term commitment to improving quality of life.
“I think it’s pretty awesome. My grandma and grandpa have season tickets,” a young Thunder fan states.
Today, a $2 billion investment by taxpayers in Oklahoma City, that includes an arena, has created a ten-fold investment by the private sector. Elected officials say the biggest success story isn’t the NBA. It’s the emotional stuff -- keeping the next generation and building a community people are proud of.