OKC Rising

by Scott Beyer
Mayor Mick Cornett’s conservative approach revives a moribund Oklahoma City.

It’s odd to think that either the Republican or Democratic party would overlook one of its rising local leaders. Generally, it seems that anytime a mayor or governor even trips into the national spotlight, he is immediately touted by party elders as the next big thing, whether or not he’s accomplished anything in office. But for ten years, one Republican has remained under the radar even while effectively leading a major city — normally hostile territory for the GOP. He is Oklahoma City mayor Mick Cornett.

Since 2004, Cornett has overseen the rise of Oklahoma’s capital from a backwater into a global metropolis. In March he will seek reelection to his fourth term, which would make him the city’s longest-serving mayor. So now is a good time to look back at his record and what it says about the national political picture.

When Cornett started, Oklahoma City was already well into a decade of growth, following years of uncertainty. Its economy had risen in the 1970s when an oil boom lured in serious investment, but global price fluctuations made this all go bust several years later. In 1982, a city bank shuttered after failing to collect its loans, and 100 more followed suit, causing the finance industry and downtown economy to collapse.

Fortunes reversed in the 1990s, however, when other industries helped diversify the economy. These included expanded local companies such as Sonic Drive-In and the craft-store chain Hobby Lobby, and growing public entities such as Tinker Air Force Base. The oil industry eventually rebounded too, backed by the rise of the city’s two Fortune 500s, Devon Energy and Chesapeake Energy. In 1988 Devon went public, quickly reaching record profits, and Chesapeake was founded one year later, becoming America’s best stock listing by the mid-1990s.

This enabled city growth throughout the decade, which was further reinforced when residents unified around the 1995 federal-office bombing. But it wasn’t until Cornett’s tenure that Oklahoma City went global, becoming one of the nation’s 30 largest cities and arguably its strongest local economy. From 2004 to 2012, it added 73,000 people, its most over an eight-year stretch since the 1950s. The metro area enjoyed a similar population growth rate of over 14 percent from 2000 to 2012, even as the state’s overall rate remained far less. Much of this was due to an in-migration of young people, signaling both Oklahoma City’s job prospects and its increasing cultural cachet. Unemployment under Cornett went as low as 2.9 percent, was three points below the national average during the recession, and is now 4.7 percent. During this period, the city has also been near the top in job creation, income growth, and business startups.

Beyond the numbers, this rise is embodied physically in downtown’s transformation into a glossy corporate business area and in the gentrification of nearby Bricktown. Cornett’s luring of an NBA team has brought national buzz and a flurry of game-day traffic, as Thunder playoff runs have become a citywide rite of spring. And even during the recession, the city enjoyed $2 billion in development, topped by Devon’s recently completed 50-story downtown headquarters.

A lot of this boom results from the fact that Oklahoma City is structurally geared for growth — something Cornett has little messed with. Besides oil, the city benefits from agricultural commodities that have brought stability throughout the Great Plains. Its political atmosphere, as a majority-Republican city in a right-wing state, also helps. According to Dean Stansel’s economic-freedom index for U.S. cities, Oklahoma City’s rating is well into the top third nationwide. One reason is its low taxes, thanks largely to Oklahoma’s having one of the lowest state burdens; also, the revenue generated is spent judiciously. The city’s current debt is $1.1 billion (compared with $18.5 billion in Detroit and $29 billion in Chicago). Its public-employee retirement trust is fully funded, a shocking achievement for a service in which 80 percent funding would be considered superb. Oklahoma City also has minimal regulations, particularly for land use. This has produced a housing market that is cheap — the median home price is $116,000 — but because of the city’s understandably cautious banking culture, not overly speculative.

“We are surviving,” said one businessman during the recession, “because in good times we are conservative and in bad times we are conservative.”

Of course fiscal conservatism is good, but it can’t be a city’s lone strategy. Ultimately leaders must deliver services, and Cornett’s administration has shown how to do this efficiently. In 2009 he expanded the Metropolitan Area Projects (MAPS) capital-improvement program, which was founded in 1993 after a business executive claimed that he hadn’t headquartered his company in Oklahoma City because of its lifeless downtown. In response, then-mayor Ron Norick started the program, and it has expanded multiple times, evolving into MAPS 3 under Cornett, funding a legion of downtown improvements.

Some of these have been practical, such as new sidewalks, parks, health centers, school renovations, and a central library. Others, such as the Chesapeake Energy basketball arena, and the adjacent Cox Convention Center, are perhaps less so. But where Oklahoma City differs is in its approach. Each new MAPS program has been overwhelmingly approved by voters and funded by a 1 percent sales tax. This means that, rather than increasing debt, they are paid for upfront and are thus more cost-effective. The $777 million accrued for MAPS 3, for example, produced a list of completed projects so expansive as to be unimaginable in other cities. By comparison, Chicago spent $882 million on its convention-center expansion alone. In a phone interview, Cornett attributed the difference in part to the fact that projects are bid out rather than run by union-controlled government authorities.

Besides a more livable downtown, Cornett has addressed other quality-of-life issues. After recognizing a citywide — and his personal — weight problem, he anchored a successful campaign for residents to lose 1 million pounds. He has also championed school reforms that reduce truancy and encourage merit pay for teachers.

Put together, these accomplishments have made a destination of Oklahoma City and a celebrity of Cornett. He was named Public Official of the Year by Governing magazine and one of America’s most innovative mayors by Newsweek. He has also appeared on Ellen DeGeneres’s and Bill Maher’s talk shows, not exactly typical programs for an Oklahoma Republican.

The message that the GOP should take from his crossover appeal is that conservative economic policies can be not only effective in cities but also popular. They simply must be applied by leaders who are interested in enhancing urban culture. This can include reforming schools and policing, but also cleaning up waterfronts, building pocket parks, and converting obstructive downtown overpasses into boulevards — all Cornett accomplishments. Focusing on such street-level projects could rebrand a party that’s now unpopular in cities, especially, said Cornett, if they are advertised as “capital investments.”

Unlike with social programs, “our constituents can see the stuff they paid for,” he said. “They can walk up and touch it — and then they see our unemployment rate drop.”

Democrats as well should note the effect that conservative policies have on cities, especially as they weigh how to revive bankrupt ones such as Stockton and Detroit. These cities’ insolvency resulted after decades of budget-imploding, tax-and-spend liberalism. Their turnaround may be inspired by the more sober approach of booming Oklahoma City and of mayors like Mick Cornett.

Scott Beyer is traveling the U.S. to write a book on revitalizing major cities. He blogs at BigCitySparkplug.com.

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