Smart growth stories: Investing in Oklahoma City with Mayor Mick Cornett

A decade ago, many Americans knew Oklahoma City only as the site of one of the worst domestic tragedies in the country’s history. Today, thanks to the policies and initiatives of Mayor Mick Cornett and the city council, Oklahoma City is experiencing unprecedented economic growth – and several smart growth strategies have helped make it happen.

Oklahoma City’s gains in recent years are due in large part to the Cornett administration’s concerted – and politically risky, at times – effort to enhance, understand and plan for growth. To add value to Oklahoma City’s downtown, Cornett and his team are pursuing capital improvement programs, supporting development throughout the region, and leveraging projects to attract new businesses and raise the quality of life for residents. Bucking the trend of do-nothing politics, Cornett is a man of progress, getting things done with support from voters and relying on common sense policy objectives.

“The quality of life in the suburbs is directly related to the intensity of the core of the city. And that’s not instinctual. But you can’t be a suburb of nothing.”

Cornett is quick to share credit for the city’s success with his predecessors in the Mayor’s office and the hard work and vision of the Oklahoma City City Council. City leadership has sought to turn city expenditures into investments, and to make sure both the city and its residents get their money’s worth. That bold new vision for Oklahoma City’s future was furthered in 2009 in the form of a $777 million plan to reinvent the city’s downtown. Convincing voters to approve a one-cent sales tax increase to fund the so-called “Metropolitan Area Projects” (MAPs) was no easy task, but Cornett persevered. The program led to new and upgraded sports, recreation, entertainment, cultural and convention facilities, helping change the face of Oklahoma City and thus change how the area was viewed by outside investors, job-seekers, press and potential new businesses. Now, Cornett’s administration is pursuing MAP 3 as a follow up to the original program.

The results speak for themselves. Cornett was named one of Governing magazine’s Public Officials of the Year for 2010. And in recent months Oklahoma City has been featured on several positive lists of American cities, from Businessweek’s “America’s Best Places,” to Forbes’ “Best Places for Business” to “Happiest Cities for Jobs.”

Smart growth doesn’t have to be about zoning minutiae and wonky planner-speak. It’s about investing in what matters – common sense backed by community leaders as a response to changing times. No one embodies that effort better than Mayor Cornett. “You can’t select these things on your own – you have to have neighborhood enthusiasts,” he says in the interview above with Smart Growth America. “So that’s the first thing you’re looking for. Where is that enthusiastic group of people who want to make their neighborhood better, and how can we partner to help? There are a lot of federal programs you can tap into, try to help lead them to, get your planning department involved. And a lot of time, it takes some creativity…and it always takes a lot of hard work. But there are a lot of success stories around the country, and Oklahoma City has plenty of them.”

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Download a full transcript of “Smart growth investments in Oklahoma City” with Mayor Mick Cornett (PDF).

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