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Oklahoma City provides a road map for Colorado Springs' downtown improvement

July 10, 2015 Updated: July 10, 2015 at 10:57 am
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photo - People enjoy the free canal boat rides under the holiday lights during the OneMain Financial Lights the Bricktown Canal event, which is part of Downtown in December in Oklahoma City Saturday, November 19, 2011. Photo by Doug Hoke, The Oklahoman
People enjoy the free canal boat rides under the holiday lights during the OneMain Financial Lights the Bricktown Canal event, which is part of Downtown in December in Oklahoma City Saturday, November 19, 2011. Photo by Doug Hoke, The Oklahoman 

If Colorado Springs wants a blueprint to pump life into its downtown, create jobs and spur its economy, it need only look to Oklahoma City.

With a sputtering economy in the late 1980s and early '90s, unsuccessful bids to lure major employers and a lifeless downtown that was about to lose its only major hotel, Oklahoma City embarked on a plan to improve its quality of life by adding big-ticket, civic improvements.

The result was the Metropolitan Area Projects initiative, or MAPS - Oklahoma City's massive capital improvements program funded by a 1993, voter-approved sales tax hike. It raised $350 million to construct a minor-league baseball stadium and civic arena, renovate a convention center, build a library and develop five other projects - all of which became centerpieces of the city's downtown revitalization.

- Read about the 20-year history of MAPS in Oklahoma City

"Oklahoma City?" former three-term Mayor Ron Norick said in describing his downtown before MAPS. "You could shoot a cannon and not hurt anybody. It was desolate."

Norick spoke Thursday at a Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance luncheon, offering lessons to about 120 business people, civic leaders and elected officials on how Oklahoma City accomplished its MAPS program.

City officials rallied public support for MAPS, in large part, because they kept it simple, Norick said. A ballot proposal called for a 1-cent sales tax increase that would sunset after five years; the public would have viewed a 10-year tax as permanent, he said.

Nine specific downtown projects were proposed to be funded on a pay-as-you-go-basis - no money would be borrowed for the work, he said.

"Five years, nine projects, one cent," Norick said. "Yes or no."

Another key piece of the MAPS process: A united front among elected officials, who touted the program as essential for downtown and the city's overall quality of life.

"Don't underestimate the value of quality-of-life issues," Norick said, adding that a thriving downtown provides a place for young people, young couples and their children.

Whether Colorado Springs can learn from Oklahoma City when it comes to gaining public support for the proposed City for Champions tourism projects - which include a downtown sports and events center - remains to be seen.

Mayor John Suthers, who attended Thursday's luncheon, said he's inspired by the efforts undertaken by Oklahoma City.

But the Springs first must address its pothole and infrastructure woes before it embarks on the kind of program tackled by Oklahoma City. Suthers already had said he supports a five-year, 0.62-cent sales tax increase that would raise $50 million a year for roads.

Upgrading roads and streets will serve as an economic development tool - making the city more appealing to businesses and employers, he said.

"If we want to be the kind of community we want to attract people here, we've got to take care of those things that only government does," Suthers said. "We cannot turn to the private sector for roads, curb and gutter and all that sort of thing."

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