›› Storify: El Paso business, civic leaders study Oklahoma City
›› Photos: El Paso officials visit Oklahoma City

OKLAHOMA CITY - Ask almost any resident of Oklahoma City what it took to transform their downtown and their city, and three words resonate: Unity. Leadership. Hunger.

And millions of dollars, raised one penny at a time.

Cindy Ramirez

"Don't look at things as they are, look at things as they should be," former Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys told a group of El Paso civic and business leaders who recently visited the city to learn about its transformation. "You have to stand together with a common goal, a common vision and be brave enough - hungry enough - to make it happen."

The Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce coordinated the trip to Oklahoma City on Sept. 13-15. Officials said the focus of the trip was to learn about that city's redevelopment firsthand, particularly as El Paso prepares for the $473 million quality-of-life bond referendum in November and the building of a $50 million downtown ballpark.


The El Paso City Council on Tuesday approved a contract with MountainStar Sports Group, the local investors bringing the Tucson Padres franchise to El Paso in 2014, amid much controversy about whether baseball can help bring positive change to the city.

"It's not just about baseball, but it began with baseball and big dreams in Oklahoma City," said Richard Dayoub, chief executive officer of the El Paso chamber. "There's certainly lessons to be learned."

About 30 bankers, developers, architects, engineers, planners, arts and culture directors and nonprofit administrators toured Oklahoma City's downtown and its hospital district. "I'm impressed by what I see. I see how we can take bits and pieces from what they've done here to El Paso," Ray Adauto of the El Paso Builders Association during the trip.

"More than anything, I want to take back the ideas of vision and leadership, said."

Oklahoma City, the capital and largest city in the state of Oklahoma, has become a model city for turning around its economy and quality of life after decades of population decline and economic downturn.

The change is attributed largely to a series of initiatives that increased the sales tax by a penny, which raised millions of dollars for many projects. The investment was followed by billions of dollars of private investment and continues today with new multimillion-dollar downtown revitalization programs.

Located about 570 miles northeast of El Paso, the city is now home to the NBA's Oklahoma City Thunder, the RedHawks Triple-A baseball team, the popular Bricktown tourist destination and about 592,000 residents. The NBA team and tourist district did not exist before the city reinvented itself.

"You either invest in yourself the right way or you're stunting your own growth," Humphreys told the El Paso group during a luncheon at the Legends Lounge at the RedHawks Bricktown Ballpark. "We chose to invest in ourselves."

Essential to making change happen, according to Humphreys, is having unity among leaders, having leaders who are willing to put their political capital on the line, addressing the needs of the community, having a focus and a strategic plan that has something for everyone - and delivering on your promise.

Mick Cornett, the current mayor of Oklahoma City, said several things happened in Oklahoma City that united its residents as at no other time before.

The oil crash of the 1980s left the state in financial trouble, and in 1991, United Airlines chose Indianapolis, Ind., over Oklahoma City to build its billion-dollar maintenance facility, citing quality-of-life concerns as the major factor in the decision. 

"We were pretty desperate; things were really bad," Cornett said. He added that the city was losing industry, population and its young people.

From that, the Metropolitan Area Projects was born. Approved by voters in 1993, the MAPS initiative increased the sales tax by 1 cent over five years and raised $363 million for a number of projects, starting with the Bricktown Ballpark.

In 1995, the Oklahoma City bombings, that killed 168 people not only rattled the city, but also created an "emotional impact like we'd never seen," Cornett said. In the loss and devastation, the community rallied together to support and improve the city, he said.

"From that moment, we just couldn't turn back." Cornett said.

Voters in 1998 approved a six-month extension to finish the projects, including the ballpark where the RedHawks now play, the mile-long Bricktown Canal, downtown trolleys, a new downtown library, state fair park improvements, and renovations to the Cox Convention Center and the Civic Center Music Hall.

After that success, the mayor said, Oklahoma City faced trouble attracting and retaining families and professionals, many citing the poor state of schools in the city. To help remedy that, the city again turned to the MAPS program but with a different focus: schools.

The Metropolitan Area Public Schools proposal called for every school in the Oklahoma City School District, the largest in the city, to be rebuilt or renovated. Suburban schools located within or near the city limits also received part of the MAPS money for capital projects.

The schools MAPS, a 1-cent sales tax increase for seven years, was approved by voters in 2001 and raised $534 million. The project also included a voter-approved $180 million bond issue. A seven-member trust appointed by the City Council and the school district oversees the project.

A recent initiative to improve downtown Oklahoma City is called Project 180, a four-year, $160 million redesign of streets, sidewalks, parks and plazas meant to make the area more pedestrian friendly. The project is financed through the tax increment financing district, voter-approved general obligation bonds and the Oklahoma City Water Utilities Trust.

Earlier this year, the city began "Spokies," a bicycle share and rental program funded in part by federal grant dollars. The program allows people to rent a bicycle from any one of several points in the downtown using their credit cards.

In the planning stages now is MAPS 3, a $777 million initiative that includes plans to improve the Ford Center multipurpose arena (home of the Thunder) and creating a $132 million, 70-acre downtown park.

"Our advantage has been we can pay as we go without creating debt," Humphreys said. Oklahoma City's sales tax rate is 8.375, of which the city receives 3.875 cents. Two of those cents are allocated to the city's general fund, and 1 cent dedicated to the MAPS program.

"I think that's how this all got sold to the people," said Oklahoma City resident Paul Roca, 45, during a night out at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. The three-story museum features a cafe, a rooftop terrace, a small theater and 15 galleries.

"Not everyone was in favor of this at the beginning, but you couldn't really argue over pennies when you considered the return," Roca said.

Texas caps the state's sales tax at 8.25 percent, of which the state government takes 6.25 percent.

El Paso already taxes at the 8.25 rate; the city collects one penny, and the other penny is split between the county and for transit. The city's sales tax revenues, about $72.5 million in fiscal year 2012, account for about 23 percent of its annual operating budget. Property taxes make up about 41 percent of the budget.

In El Paso, residential property owners carry the biggest tax burden, and bond debt is repaid primarily through that revenue. To help increase the commercial and industrial tax base, officials said, the city needs to attract more businesses to El Paso.

The city is now banking on the ballpark and the Triple-A baseball team to help boost that kind of development, provide entertainment and improve the quality of life in the region - which in turn could attract industry and needed professionals, such as doctors, to the city.

Opponents say they don't believe baseball will have that kind of impact, and they have been most upset that the issue didn't go to voters. Opponents also argue that tearing down City Hall and the Insights El Paso Science Center to make room for the ballpark is an unnecessary expense.

Oklahoma City officials said their MAPS plan required voter approval, and public buy-in has been important to success. Even so, Oklahoma City faced opposition and caused controversy.

The third reiteration of MAPS has had what some believe to be the most opposition. "We keep saying we need a break, we need to slow down," said a retired Oklahoma City educator, Charlie Henderson, during a stroll through the Oklahoma City National Memorial. "If we go through another recession and could lose tax revenues and be left with a lot of unfinished, unfunded projects."

Henderson's wife, Ellen, chimed in, "We just have to tread carefully."

Asked whether they believed Oklahoma City would have transformed itself had the bombings not occurred, the Hendersons couldn't answer.

"There's no telling," Ellen Henderson said.

Humphreys, the former Oklahoma City mayor, said the public investment has also spurred private investment - a reported $5 billion, including the $750 million Devon Energy 52-story corporate skyscraper completed earlier this year. Millions more have been invested in office buildings, restaurants, bars, hotels and condominiums, officials said.

Humphreys said getting the private sector to invest took only an invitation.

"We are not known for taking chances," Humphreys said about the business sector. "We are known for taking calculated risks."

Humphreys and Cornett agree that Oklahoma City's makeover was part luck, part vision.

"If you live and grow in a city, what you know is what you see," Cornett said. "Sometimes, you have to step outside of that and dream big."

Cindy Ramirez may be reached at cramirez@elpasotimes.com; 546-6151.

Health, research and the homeless
- Oklahoma City leaders pointed to two other major components of its success: Addressing the homeless and panhandler issues in the community, and investing in the health of its residents.
-The Homeless Alliance was formed in 2004 as a 10-year plan to end homelessness in the city. It was initially funded through private grants.
-The plan addressed the special needs of people with AIDS, mental illness and disabilities by providing shelter and creating special bus routes to the shelters and other facilities that offered central services. Programs to help prevent homelessness were also created.
-To reduce the number of panhandlers in downtown and Bricktown, Oklahoma City partnered with the Homeless Alliance to create a program in which people can buy food, shelter and bus vouchers to donate to panhandlers and homeless instead of cash.
-The Oklahoma Health Center is a 300-acre complex with 32 health care, medical research and public health institutions, including three major hospitals and the Oklahoma University Health Sciences Center. The OHC supports more than 13,000 jobs and reportedly generates $807 million in annual labor income and $3.4 billion in annual economic impact.
-Two major components of the center are the Oklahoma University Medical Center Children's Hospital and the Presbyterian Health Foundation Research Park that supports biomedical technology.

By the numbers

El Paso - Oklahoma City 2010 Population : 665,568 -- 591,967 White : 80.8% -- 62.7% Black : 3.4 -- 15.1 Hispanic : 80.7% -- 17.2% Median value/housing units : $108,400 -- $124,600 Median household income : $37,428 -- $43,798 Persons below poverty level : 24.1% -- 16.6% Per capita retail sales (2007) : $13,146 -- $15,444

Source: U.S. Census Bureau 2010 QuickFacts