OKC looks to future by visiting other cities

As president and CEO of the
Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, Williams leads a yearly trip to Oklahoma City’s
peer cities – some larger, some smaller – with representatives from the local
business community and city leaders. Past trips, which began in 2005, have have included Ft.
Worth, Texas; Nashville, Tenn.; Charlotte, N.C.; and Denver. Before the end of
the year, the chamber plans to send a coalition to Austin, Texas, for its annual
intercity visit.

Williams, and
representatives from Ft. Worth and Charlotte, gave presentations to members of
the Oklahoma City Council Sept. 18 in a special meeting at Oklahoma City
Community College. It focused on community revitalization.

In the visits near and far,
there have been some wake-up calls. Williams said he has seen evidence that it’s
not enough to have an arena or convention center if there are not things to do
around the facility. To be successful, any large-scale event facility also must
tie into Downtown. While Oklahoma City is just in the planning stages for a new
convention center, serious plans for a convention center hotel have not begun.

“In all these communities
we went to, we really saw kind of how far behind we were in the convention
industry,” he said.

In Charlotte, he found the
city faced challenges and struggles when it got a second professional sports
team. Leaders there had to accommodate the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and the addition
of the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats in 2004. He said the lesson was that you can
have too many professional franchises in a market.

Randle Harwood, planning
and redevelopment director for Ft. Worth, discussed how his city has taken
blighted and underutilized areas in and around downtown and turned them into
thriving retail and residential projects. He said those areas have thrived
through public and private investment, form-based codes for zoning issues.
While those areas around downtown have thrived, he praised Oklahoma City’s
growth through taxpayer-funded MAPS projects.

“That’s a fabulous tool I’d
like to have in Ft. Worth,” he said.

Charlotte’s planning director, Debra
Campbell, said despite the city being the second largest
banking center in the country, and just hosting the Democratic National
Convention, she called it a “city in transition.”

The city has benefited
from what Campbell called its rich uncles, Bank of America and Wells Fargo, but
city leaders have had to come up with ambitious development plans every 10
years to keep it competitive and not solely reliant on the financial
sector. One area of growth there, eyed by Oklahoma City officials, is a light
rail system.

The system began as a
series of trolleys, and by 2007 had evolved into a light rail system. With
nearly 10 miles of tracks, and an investment of $1.8 billion over the last five
years, the city is looking at ways to enhance and enlarge the light rail system
to reach more areas.

No date is set for the
Austin intercity visit, but Williams knows what he wants to look at when he
gets there. He said the city benefits from branding from large scale events, such as the South by Southwest film and music event held each year. He would like
to find an event here to help brand the city in a positive way.

“That’s one of the reasons
we’re going to Austin,” he said.

On the other hand, he said Austin’s
once tourist-rich Sixth Street has evolved into nothing more than a dangerous
area lined with bars. City officials there acknowledge that the entertainment district
is not what it once was. Williams said they have provided cautionary words to
others looking to grow their entertainment districts. He said officials in
Austin have told him, “You need to learn how to treasure and keep it, because we’ve
lost it.”

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