Downtown Oklahoma City.
Actually, it’s way better than OK, having developed into an impressive technology center from what was once not much.
Oklahoma City was cloaked in a depressing vibe in the early 1990s. Downtown retail had disappeared. The oil bust of the late 1980s had decimated the city’s energy industry. The workforce lived mostly in suburban communities. Corporate relocation executives said “no” to the city’s economic development efforts on a regular basis. In those dark days, Scott Meacham was a young attorney practicing in the western Oklahoma community of Clinton. Client business often took him to federal court in downtown Oklahoma City, roughly 100 miles to the east.
“I can distinctly remember in the early ‘90s being in downtown Oklahoma City for a deposition or a late court date and thinking ‘I want to get out of here as soon as I can because it gets pretty scary after 5 p.m.,’ ” Meacham said as he recalled Oklahoma’s capital city of 25 years ago. “I can say that downtown was not a place you ever wanted to be after dark,” said Meacham, who served as Oklahoma’s state treasurer in the early 2000s. “There was nothing downtown except the tall skyscrapers where people worked.”
Today, Meacham is CEO of i2E, Inc., an Oklahoma City-based not-for-profit corporation that provides funding and business advice for technology-based startups. I2E is located in the University Research Park, a few hundred yards east of downtown in the heart of what is known as the Oklahoma Health Center campus.
“We had this sort of bleak place ‘80s and ‘90s where you really didn’t have the power of place going on,” Meacham said. “Then some really visionary leaders decided, ‘we have to do something about that.’” The transformation began on December 14, 1993, when Oklahoma City voters approved a series of nine civic projects known as MAPS, for Metropolitan Area Projects.
Led by then Mayor Ron Norick, the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber and a host of civic and business leaders, MAPS was an ambitious, pay-as-you-go project in which voters agreed to increase local sales tax by 1 cent over a period of five years.
The original MAPS vote remade the city, literally and figuratively.
As Meacham looked out the window of his research park office toward Oklahoma City’s downtown barely a quarter mile to the west, he marveled at the difference a quarter century has made. The 50-story Devon Energy Tower, completed in 2013, dominates the landscape. And rising from the ground just across the street from the research park is the $110 million General Electric Global Research Center that is still under construction. New apartments are being built just to the east.
In addition to the downtown construction, aerospace giant Boeing is building an $80 million facility near Tinker Air Force Base that will bring almost 1,000 engineering and R&D jobs to town.
“Oklahoma City has become this cool place,” Meacham said. “They built the Devon Tower, and now housing is being constructed. All of a sudden the power of place has been established in Oklahoma City.”
MAPS resulted in a new downtown ballpark, a sports and entertainment arena, a downtown library, a canal that would meander through an area of dilapidated warehouses called Bricktown, a renovated Civic Center Music Hall, renovations to the Myriad Convention Center (now called the Cox Convention Center), renovations to the state fairgrounds, construction of a landscaped riverfront and recreational dams on the North Canadian River that passes just south of downtown, and development of a downtown trolley system on rails.
The original MAPS projects took nine years to complete and were paid for with the $362 million raised by the tax, plus a six-month extension that raised enough to fund everything. Only the rail system was not built, with rubber-wheeled trolley replicas substituted when opposition surfaced from then Congressman Ernest Istook.
Voters also approved a subsequent $700 million MAPS for Kids to improve facilities for the Oklahoma City public schools and then in 2009 passed the $777 million MAPS 3 that is under construction today. The MAPS 3 program will finally bring a rail trolley line through downtown Oklahoma City, as well as a new convention center, an Olympic-scale whitewater rafting venue and an ambitious central park.
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In 2005, serendipity brought the New Orleans Hornets to Oklahoma City for two years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Crescent City over the Labor Day weekend. With the start of the NBA season only two months away, the Hornets needed a place to play. Mayor Mick Cornett volunteered Oklahoma City and its new arena that had been built as part of the original MAPS projects. NBA Commissioner David Stern liked the proposal, and the Hornets came to town as temporary tenants. The NBA saw what was possible in the city when the Hornets were quickly embraced by Oklahoma City fans. Season ticket sales, corporate sponsorships and attendance all far surpassed expectations.
Today, Oklahoma City is home to the fabulously successful Thunder, which plays in the same MAPS arena, although it was upgraded via a $120 million, six-month extension of the MAPS For Kids initiative in a campaign that was branded “Big League City.”
Along with bond issues over the past two decades, Oklahoma City has invested more than $3 billion in itself to remake the city, said Roy Williams, president of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber. “When you combine all of those, you really begin creating a place where entrepreneurs want to be,” Williams said. “Now we are not only successful in retaining and attracting entrepreneurs, we are learning every day about what it is that enhances the entrepreneur and enhances our ability to get this kind of mental capital into our community.”
Oklahoma City’s investment in itself resulted in more than physical changes. There is a tremendous feel-good-about-ourselves spirit in the city that has drawn entrepreneurs from afar, kept the best and the brightest from leaving and resulted in a big increase in the number of business ventures located in or near downtown.
For instance, the Greater OKC Chamber reports that the number of businesses located in the Central Business District, adjacent Bricktown, Oklahoma Health Center campus area and a strip just north of downtown known as Automobile Alley totaled 2,748 in 2014. That’s a 21.5 percent increase over the 2,261 businesses reported just eight years earlier.
A wider audience has noticed. Oklahoma City has consistently been ranked among the nation’s top locations for entrepreneurs or places to start a new business in various national rankings over the past few years. It was ranked No. 1 by Kiplinger magazine, Entrepreneur magazine and CNN/Money in separate 2014 lists that each uses slightly different metrics.
The growth of Meacham’s corporation, i2E, Inc., has paralleled the city’s emergence as a hub for startups. Since it was founded in 1998, i2E has provided business services or funding to 324 Oklahoma City-based startups.
Working in partnership with the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology (OCAST), the state’s agency that supports inventors, scientists and R&D through a variety of programs, i2E provided services for 45 Oklahoma City client companies in fiscal 2015.
One of those clients was Exaptive, Inc., which came to life in Cambridge, Mass., and relocated to Oklahoma City because its founder and CEO was attracted to the city’s downtown vibe. Exaptive provides a platform that allows clients to analyze big blocks of data and extrapolate whatever relevant information they choose.
Dave King, Exaptive’s founder, moved to Oklahoma his wife, who had become a professor of religion at the University of Oklahoma in nearby Norman. King planned to continue operating Exaptive as a Boston-area company because it had a thriving business there, but plans changed as he and his wife became acquainted with what Oklahoma City had to offer.
“I’d certainly heard that Oklahoma City was going through a renaissance, but when I got here, I was able to see it for myself, and the enthusiasm was definitely contagious,” King said. “I was surprised and excited when I got here in a bunch of different ways that I didn’t expect.” King and his wife now live downtown in a loft apartment, with Dave directing Exaptive’s day-to-day operations from a room he converted into an office.
Oklahoma City has built a supportive infrastructure to nourish both R&D and emerging startups. Many are biotechnology-related firms that have spun out of the Oklahoma Health Campus, which is home to the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine and the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation.
Other startups are commercializing innovations developed at the state’s public research universities, the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University, or one of more than a dozen private colleges in the Oklahoma City metropolitan area. Still others are innovations that emerged simply because their founders had a good idea.
A notable example is Paycom Software Inc., which was founded in 1998 by Oklahoma City native Chad Richison. Paycom provides online payroll and HR services, with 2014 revenue exceeding $150 million. It employs approximately 1,000 people and its stock is listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
Another flourishing company is WeGoLook, which has taken the concept of crowd-sourced tasking to a new level through a network of more than 20,000 contractors known as “lookers” who evaluate merchandise and property, provide inspections, document retrieval and more. WeGoLook grew from 15 employees to more than 70 during 2015, and its business now reaches across the United States, as well as to the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada.
Mayor Cornett said the city is working to attract a younger, more educated workforce that he calls the Creative Class. “We spend a lot of time working on attracting highly educated, 20-somethings who have a choice on where they want to live,” Cornett said. “We seem to be doing well in that matter.”
Oklahoma City’s renaissance was celebrated in December at the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber’s annual meeting with 1,200 people attending. Among the speakers was former Mayor Ron Norick, who helped kick off the city’s phenomenal growth more than two decades ago with his support of the MAPS initiative.
“When I first came into City Hall, people were down,” Norick said. “They did not want to admit they were from Oklahoma City.”
That was then.
“Now, as you travel the world and you say you are from Oklahoma City, they know you we are,” Norick said. “And we get to be proud to say we’re from Oklahoma City.”
Jim Stafford is a freelance writer who worked as a newspaper reporter in Oklahoma City for more than 23 years, covering a business news beat that included technology and the city’s startup community.