OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - Today’s downtown Oklahoma City is very uptown. The city is vibrant. There’s a strong corporate presence. You’ll find artistic flare and a new focus on urban living.
The jewel of this emerging city is its state-of-the-art pro arena, home to one of the NBA’s premier franchises and thousands of cheering fans.
“Oklahoma loves the Thunder,” one fan shouted.
Not long ago, Oklahoma City looked very different. In the late 1980s, the economy hit rock bottom. Oil and gas went bust. The Murrah Federal Building bombing in 1995 left the city branded by tragedy and struggling to create jobs and a place where the next generation wanted to live.
“We lost my generation in Oklahoma City,” said Mayor Mick Cornett, who has overseen much of the city’s comeback.
“If you had an advanced degree and were coming of age in the 80s and early 90s, you’re not in Oklahoma City today,” Cornett added.
In 1993, the city put its big league dreams in an innovative program called MAPS, Metropolitan Area Projects, $350 million worth of projects to try and revitalize downtown. No state money. No corporate partners like Virginia Beach. Oklahoma City found its future by residents banding together and investing in themselves.
A penny-on-a-dollar sales tax increase funded a Triple-A ball park, a new library and concert hall, upgrades to the convention center, and an $89-million bare bones arena now home to the NBA’s Thunder. All projects were built debt free.
The city’s Republican mayor is not afraid to talk taxes. “Well, it’s important not to demonize taxes. People just want their tax dollars spent efficiently," Cornett said.
Cornett says Oklahoma City became a big league city because people were willing to lock arms and pull on same rope, even at city hall. “City Council gets along with the mayor. The business community supports city hall and I think at the end of the day people like the fact they don’t have to be referees for their elected officials," the mayor said.
In Virginia Beach, no refs were needed, but City Council clearly was not unanimous on how to move forward on an arena deal. Some members insisted the arena numbers didn’t add up.
While the arena deal is dead for now, Mayor Will Sessoms still sees Virginia Beach as a big league city with an NBA team. “I very much want to bring one to our community,” Sessoms said.
But whether residents of Virginia Beach want a pro team is not yet clear.
"As long as we have kids going to school in portable classrooms we should not be building an arena,” one Virginia Beach resident told us.
Cornett admits his city's big league dream was not without critics initially.
"The first MAPS vote barely passed. It got 54-percent. Today, you cannot find anyone who would admit they voted against it," Cornett noted.
In fact, residents there voted two more times to extend the sales tax; a $700 million investment in schools and another $770 million for a new convention center, senior health and wellness centers and upgrades to the arena.But whether residents of Virginia Beach want a pro team is not yet clear. “It gives us something to be excited about," one fan told us.But whether residents of Virginia Beach want a pro team is not yet clear. Today Oklahoma City residents have invested $2 billion to make their city a big league city. The private sector investment has surpassed that tenfold. The biggest success here, however, is the emotional one. Oklahoma City is now keeping the next generation and building a community known around the world.But whether residents of Virginia Beach want a pro team is not yet clear.