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‘The Next American City’ Review: A New Kind of Street Smarts

Former Oklahoma City mayor Mick Cornett in downtown Oklahoma City.
Former Oklahoma City mayor Mick Cornett in downtown Oklahoma City. Photo: Nick Oxford for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Midsize cities are having a moment. Last year, the nation’s biggest metro areas lost residents to smaller ones for the first time since the Great Recession. Millennials in search of affordable housing are moving not just to hipster places like Seattle and Denver but to Memphis and Louisville. Even cities that have bled residents for years, such as Akron, Ohio, and Scranton, Pa., are starting to stabilize. Mick Cornett’s “The Next American City” calls on midsize metros to seize this moment and secure their future. “New, exciting ideas,” he writes, are “growing in these places, a true revolution is coming.”

Mr. Cornett is a consequential figure in urban circles. From 2004 to early 2018, he served as the mayor of Oklahoma City. When he took office, the city was just beginning to recover from the energy bust of the 1980s. Decades of misguided “urban renewal” had devastated downtown. Many streets lacked sidewalks. The “river” that defined the southern edge of downtown lacked water. By the time he stepped down, things had changed, and not only downtown. The city had a snappy new nickname (OKC), an NBA team (the Oklahoma City Thunder), hip new neighborhoods (Bricktown, Automobile Alley), and a river, yes, with water, even with world-class rowing facilities. Every street in the downtown area had been rebuilt. So had every inner-city school in the city.

‘The Next American City’ Review: A New Kind of Street Smarts
Photo: WSJ

The Next American City

By Mick Cornett
Putnam, 254 pages, $27

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These kinds of changes require money—in the case of Oklahoma City, more than $5 billion in public and private funding. Yet Oklahoma City accomplished this feat without permanent tax increases. That story is at the heart of “The Next American City.”

Oklahoma City’s transformation began with a humiliating setback. In 1990 United Airlines announced a nationwide competition for the site of a vast new maintenance facility. The airline estimated that it would provide 7,000 jobs and generate nearly a billion dollars in economic activity. Oklahoma City needed a turnaround win, so Mayor Ron Norick pulled out all the stops. First, he persuaded city voters to add a one-cent surcharge to the city’s sales tax for three years to help build the United facility. Then he secured an additional $180 million in incentives from the state. Yet ultimately United chose Indianapolis. It’s not that Indianapolis offered more incentives; it simply offered a more appealing city. As Mr. Cornett puts it: “Oklahoma City was an incredible place to live . . . if you were a car.”

For Oklahoma City’s leaders, it was a lightbulb moment. Henceforth it would focus on creating livable spaces instead of trying to create jobs. In 1993 Mr. Norick went to voters with another proposal for a temporary sales-tax increase, but this time the money was used differently. Dams put water into the dry riverbed in the center of the city. A new ballpark was built to keep the city’s minor-league team and a new sports arena to serve a professional sports franchise. A new central library was constructed. Transit got an upgrade. So did the fairgrounds.

No money was borrowed to pay for these projects, and only when the sales tax raised enough revenue did the building begin. Mr. Norick called the process MAPS, for Metropolitan Area Projects. “MAPS changed everything,” Mr. Cornett writes. It jump-started private investment downtown. More important, it became a formula for urban investment that conservative voters would accept. Since 1993, OKC has been through two additional rounds, one to rebuild the city’s schools, the other to build a network of sidewalks, bike lanes and street-car lines. Each has involved a direct vote on a temporary sales tax for a specific project, to be overseen by citizen advisory groups.

But “The Next American City” isn’t just about Oklahoma City. Among other midsize cities, it includes chapters on Albuquerque, N.M., Louisville, Ky., Des Moines, Iowa, Sacramento, Calif., Buffalo, N.Y., and the evocatively named El Dorado, Ark. (which in Mr. Cornett’s telling does sound great). From their experiences, Mr. Cornett extracts some core lessons. For instance: Talent can come from anywhere. To develop a medical startup district around the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, Mr. Cornett notes, Buffalo turned to Pat Whalen, a retired logistics entrepreneur-turned-ski bum. Under his direction, over the course of eight years, the district went from three startups to 140. In Oklahoma City, a well-connected entry-level employee, Christy Counts, led a fundraising effort to upgrade a local animal shelter. Another lesson: Build on civic strengths. Des Moines transformed its old central library building into the Norman E. Borlaug World Food Prize Hall of Laureates. Now, every fall, scientists and business leaders from around the world gather to celebrate the recipient of a $250,000 prize in a building named after the native Iowan whose work sparked the Green Revolution.

The most important lesson of all: Taxpayers are more likely to pay for something if they get to approve it and oversee it, and if taxes are temporary. Oklahoma City’s experience would seem to confirm the wisdom of this idea. But how far will it get other cities?

Oklahoma City did benefit from smart leadership. But it also benefited from the oil and natural-gas boom brought about by the fracking revolution. The local businessmen who brought the Sonics from Seattle to OKC (where they became the Thunder) included a billionaire co-founder of Chesapeake Energy. The rowing facilities along the Oklahoma River? That was Chesapeake Energy too, along with another local Fortune 500 company, Devon Energy. The overhaul of the streets and sidewalks of downtown? When Devon Energy decided to build a 52-story skyscraper, it paid to overhaul all of downtown too (with repayment occurring later, courtesy of tax-backed financing).

Corporate largess of this sort is something that most cities can only dream of. Oklahoma City’s success looks rather different when seen in this light—the result, in part, of beneficial economic trends and benevolent corporate chieftains as well as the shrewd strategies and useful ideas that Mr. Cornett describes so well.

Mr. Buntin is a staff correspondent at Governing magazine.

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