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The Wrath Of Grapes: Oklahoma City MAPS Its Future

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While we see the national economic numbers like everyone else and understand the challenges facing many American cities, these are good days in Oklahoma City. We found a concept that works here: investing in ourselves.

The Oklahoma City Thunder reached the NBA Finals. We hosted Olympic kayaking trials on the Oklahoma River this spring. On any given weekend, the Bricktown entertainment district is packed with people who are dining, enjoying canal boat rides, taking in movies or attending a baseball game in our downtown ballpark. People passing through Oklahoma City on I-40 drive under the iconic Oklahoma City SkyDance Bridge sculpture and have a dynamic view of the state's largest building, the Devon Energy Center.

None of that existed 20 years ago. No NBA franchise or arena. No state's tallest building or downtown ballpark or movies. I-40 was several blocks north and crumbling. There wasn't an Olympic rowing/kayaking training center. Heck, there wasn't even a river.

What happened?

Twenty-five years ago, Oklahoma City was competing for businesses with a toolbox full of attractive financial incentives and we were coming up short. We asked for a candid appraisal from a notable business we didn't get and were told that our incentives were as good, or better, than the competition. They simply didn't think their employees would want to live here.

Naturally, this came as a shock to us. We knew we had great people. We had a low cost of living, good schools and were considered a great place to raise a family. But we lacked the quality-of-life amenities that separate good cities from great cities.

Oklahoma City decided to change that.

An innovative new program, Metropolitan Area Projects (MAPS), was developed through which we could invest in our community. The program featured defined capital projects that would be funded by a penny sales tax. The tax would have a start date and an end date and the projects would be paid for in cash, without incurring debt.

In 1993, the first MAPS vote proposed the construction of a 20,000-seat, indoor sports arena; construction of a 15,000-seat downtown ballpark; construction of a new downtown library; construction of the Bricktown Canal; development of a trolley transit system; development along the North Canadian River; and renovations to the Civic Center Music Hall, Cox Convention Center and Oklahoma State Fairgrounds.

It was an unprecedented endeavor for the community and many didn't know what to make of it. While it narrowly passed, it was ultimately a huge success that paved the way for Oklahoma City's current renaissance.

As a result of the original proposal, Oklahoma City's Bricktown, with its canals, restaurants and hotels, is the most popular and lively entertainment district in the region. The river -- formerly a ditch that we had to mow from time to time -- is now filled with water and hosts a world-class, U.S. Olympic rowing training center. The ballpark is home to the Houston Astros' AAA team and the indoor sports arena is home to the Oklahoma City Thunder, one of the most successful franchises in the NBA and certainly the hottest ticket in town.

MAPS 2 went before voters in 2001. Dubbed "MAPS for Kids," the $700-million initiative includes more than 100 Oklahoma City-area school projects, from extensive renovations to new school construction, as well as technology upgrades, new school busses and other improvements. With the addition of a $180-million bond issue and an eye on addressing childhood obesity issues, new gymnasiums were added to all of the Oklahoma City elementary schools.

In 2009, the people of Oklahoma City chose, once again, to invest in their city through MAPS 3, an ambitious $777-million plan that dramatically changes the face of downtown Oklahoma City.

The third MAPS program features a 70-acre central park linking the core of downtown with the Oklahoma River; a modern streetcar system; a new convention center; miles of new sidewalks and hike-and-bike trails; river improvements, including a public whitewater kayaking facility; senior health and wellness centers throughout the city; and improvements to the State Fair Park public buildings, meeting halls and exhibit spaces. All of these projects are moving forward. Several are in design phase. Funding is in place and all will be completed.

At the same time, we are wrapping up Project 180, a three-year, $140-million redesign of 180 acres of downtown streets, sidewalks, parks and plazas to improve appearances and make the central core more pedestrian-friendly.

The bottom line is that we have entered an age when local communities need to invest in themselves. Federal and state dollars are becoming more and more scarce for American cities. Political and civic leaders in local communities need to make a compelling case for this investment.

The will to invest in our community was born of a need to attract and retain talent that is drawn to urban areas with a quality of place. As Oklahoma City maps its future, creating an urban core that attracts this young, mobile, creative and highly educated talent pool is top of mind. It's our belief that jobs follow this talent pool and we are certainly seeing evidence of that in Oklahoma City, where in addition to a growing number of corporate career opportunities, we have also been named by the Kauffman Foundation as the most entrepreneurial city in the country, with the most start-ups per capita. Oklahoma City currently has the nation's lowest unemployment rate (4.5 percent) among cities of more than one million people.

At the same time, we are seeing evidence that the erosion of talent has stopped. According to Census numbers, for the first time we can recall, more people from Texas and California are moving to Oklahoma City than vice versa. John Steinbeck famously chronicled the migration of Oklahomans to California during the Depression-era Dust Bowl in The Grapes of Wrath. What we are seeing now is the wrath of grapes.

In a decade, downtown Oklahoma City is going to look remarkably different than it does today. Through three MAPS programs, the people of Oklahoma City have embraced the value of investing in their community and are creating a city of the future that works, in every sense.