How another American city chose to invest in change

The Gazette editorial Updated: December 9, 2013 at 11:56 pm • Published: December 8, 2013 | 12:00 am 0

Editor's note: Readers can see articles about Oklahoma City and the 20th anniversary of its revitalization project called MAPS here: http://newsok.com/business/maps-turns-20

More than 150 Colorado Springs residents weathered blizzard conditions last week to plead for constructive change. They shared with the Colorado Economic Development Commission a vision of economic growth and exciting new amenities that could materialize if the community receives tax relief for four projects that would leverage unique assets that define Colorado Springs.

Children sang, business leaders pledged private contributions and others spoke of their dreams for making this community all it can be for their kids, grandchildren, athletes and visitors from around the world. They want to see culmination of a push for four projects known as City for Champions. If given a reduction in state government tax overhead, to help finance the vision, Colorado Springs could become home to a new Olympics museum, a multi-use stadium and arena in a blighted area of downtown, a new and more accessible visitors center at the United States Air Force Academy and a state-of-the-art sports medicine center at a new branch of the University of Colorado's medical school at the Colorado Springs campus.

Oklahoma City had a similar dream 20 years ago, when the community was in an economic funk and struggling with low self-esteem and a negative, though mostly unwarranted, bad reputation. The community embarked upon a project known as MAPS (Metropolitan Area Projects), which resulted in construction of a new downtown ballpark, an arena, a downtown library and renovation of a veritable drainage ditch into a beautiful waterway that brings people to town. They overhauled the convention center and the Civic Center Music Hall.

Advocates predicted the injection of public money into the projects might generate $140 million in private investment. Instead, it generated more than $2 billion.

Community leaders from Colorado Springs, and an impressive array of other American cities, have visited Oklahoma City to figure out just what went right and why. They want to know how a sleepy Southwestern city, formerly mistaken as a cow town, became such a draw for upwardly mobile young professionals who can live anywhere they want. How, they want to know, did this city so quickly go from geek to chic.

One can easily see how the kind of community vision and optimism that worked for Oklahoma City could do even more in a place like Colorado Springs. Oklahoma City didn't start out with a world class organization like the United States Olympic Committee and 20-plus governing boards for Olympic teams, which want and need a downtown facility in which to stage events. It didn't embark on success by leveraging and enhancing visits to a military academy that consistently ranks among the five or 10 most rigorous and respected academic institutions in the country. It didn't invest in amenities that sit at the base of Pikes Peak, which the country calls "America's Mountain." It started with much less to leverage than we are blessed with in Colorado Springs.

At the time Oklahoma City voters approved the projects, the city was in dire need of less glamorous improvements. It needed repairs to streets and infrastructure that city government could not afford. Paying for those improvements became easier because of the vitality that resulted from MAPS.

One would be hard-pressed to find even the most curmudgeonly residents of Oklahoma City willing to criticize the community's investment into becoming bigger, better, stronger and more attractive. One may not find a disappointed visitor.

Today, people are drawn to visit Oklahoma City and when they get there they say "wow." It's clean, vibrant and bustling with activity. Members of the millennial generation, who are known for escaping other Midwestern and Southwestern cities, are staying as others arrive.

While world-class Denver ranks as top city in America for attracting millennials, Oklahoma City ranks 12th and no one can complain about that. It's up from a ranking of 35th just a few years ago.

Colorado Springs made its pitch to the Economic Development Commission on the same day Oklahomans celebrated the 20th anniversary of MAPS. Some of those celebrating in Oklahoma that day laughed about their staunch opposition before the projects began. They had been wrong and were happy to talk about it. Just as in Colorado Springs, even the opponents wanted only what they considered was best for their city.

While City for Champions doesn't directly parallel MAPS, the urban improvement proposals are strikingly similar.

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