Published first on the Progress News, September 5, 2022

A couple of weeks ago, from the 15th to the 19th of August, I was lucky enough to tour a number of former brownfield sites in Oklahoma City. It wasn’t just a random trip; it was the much-delayed, long-awaited National Brownfield Conference – the first in over two years. The fact that it was in Oklahoma City in mid-August was less than ideal (I used to live in Oklahoma once upon a time, in Oklahoma City, in fact, and it’s HOT in mid-August!), but I was excited to see the culmination of a project that had only just gotten started the last time I was in town. It’s been a while. It was the spring of 1997 when I decided to leave college and shipped off to basic training. A lifetime ago for me, but in Oklahoma City, it’s been many people’s life’s work – more than twenty years of hard work and dedication.

When I lived in Oklahoma, in the mid-to-late 90s, downtown was someplace we just didn’t go. The old manufacturing district was not a safe place to be, and the surrounding neighborhoods weren’t particularly inviting either. But I lived just a few miles away from downtown, so when, in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, I heard that the city intended to use tragedy as a springboard for revitalization, I was excited. I didn’t know the details back then, but some fantastic tour guides during the conference filled me in, and I learned that on top of funding received to rebuild the areas of downtown decimated by the bombing, the city had passed a limited-term 1-cent sales tax initiative called the Metropolitan Area Projects (MAPs) tax which raised millions of dollars of funds to be invested in the redevelopment of the downtown area. The first one was passed in 1993, two years before the bombing, and then two more rounds were passed in 2001 and 2009. These three rounds, along with other public entity funding, resulted in a total public investment of $3.1 Billion in the health, well-being, safety, and quality of life of Oklahoma City residents between 1995 and 2018.

Obviously, this didn’t happen overnight, and it took private sector investment to make a lot of the “fun” redevelopment projects come to life. Like Bricktown. Bricktown is the name of what used to be the manufacturing district, that place that once was known for being derelict, dirty, and dangerous. Today it’s a family-friendly playground, full of restaurants and music venues, and even a putt-putt course, with a calming, cool-breeze-inducing canal flowing through the middle of it. The decision to build a professional ballpark right at the edge of Bricktown certainly helped, too. 

I’ll talk in a bit more detail next week about some of the individual projects, but needless to say, the revitalization of downtown Oklahoma City took a lot of time, a LOT of money, and a lot of collaboration. It’s still not done, either! A lot has been done in the last couple of decades, but there are whole communities surrounding the heart of downtown that are waiting for their turn for some attention and funding. Even the previously redeveloped areas experience “churn,” or turnover of property owners and tenants as businesses come and go, with some buildings becoming vacant again for periods of time. It’s a solemn reminder of how much work it takes to build and maintain a successful redevelopment program. 

The simple scale of the timeline of redevelopment of the city’s downtown areas can be staggering. We often hear in the redevelopment world that projects routinely take twenty years from start to completion, but, of course, we All hope to move things along quicker. Oklahoma City is a great example of how redevelopment can be staged, though, so that the community gets several smaller wins along the way while they’re waiting for the big finish.

Cover photo from bricktownokc.com