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In 2012 alone, Oklahoma City has received top national rankings in categories ranging from best retail, manufacturing and IT opportunities to “Best U.S. City for Small Business,” “Best Big Cities for Jobs” and “Fittest Cities.”
More recently, CNNMoney named Oklahoma City “Most Business-Friendly City” in the United States, noting its low cost of living and booming oil and natural gas industries. According to the report, more than 6,000 small businesses participated in a survey of the nation's 40 largest metro areas.
While the methodologies of these “best” lists are not altogether scientific, maintaining a presence on them is essential.
“You want to be on as many 'good' lists as there are … because it reinforces that there's something going on,” says Roy Williams, president and CEO of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber. “It's not unusual for a city to be a one-time No. 1 and never be on the list again, but every month, we're pretty much on some No. 1 list, and when you can sustain that over time, that's what I think you consider making real progress.”
CNNMoney reported in June that a decade ago, 71% of graduates earning bachelor's degrees stayed in the Sooner State, but today, that number has increased to 81%. More companies are moving to Oklahoma City, as well. Boeing, for example, announced it will bring more than 1,500 employees from other states, while Continental Resources relocated its headquarters to Oklahoma City earlier this year.
The report also points to the city's strong support for entrepreneurs with organizations such as i2E.
“It sort of all started back when Forbes named us the No. 1 most recession-proof city … that was kind of the first major accolade we got, and then it just seems like they never stopped after that,” Williams says. “There are hardly any other metro cities, with the exception of a city like Austin, Texas, that continue to get No. 1s in accolades. To do it over a long period of time, and not just be a blip on a radar screen, but to really sustain that momentum of job creation, even airport growth, as well as maintaining a low cost of living and just that economic vibrance over such a long period of time, is unusual.”
Williams says it's the culmination of several factors: MAPS and the money spent on infrastructure and projects, which have led to a higher quality of place, which, in turn, has led to corporate investment that the city previously had not seen.
But the market also has matured.
“This is a time in Oklahoma City's life when we were under-retailed, under-office-spaced, under-commercialized, because we have a very conservative development community,” he says. “So all of a sudden, when per-capita income rose dramatically here, unemployment went dramatically down, capital investment occurred, and it really created some strong economic times … because we had this pent-up demand that didn't get met for a number of years just because of the nature of the community.
“And as a result,” he says, “it gave us phenomenal numbers, because what hurt a lot of other metropolitan areas was they overbuilt. They had more retail, more housing, more development than they could sustain. We never had that. We were too conservative, and we didn't have the national development community come here and overheat our economy. And our financial institutions were very conservative.”
What has helped is Oklahoma City didn't witness any major corporate downsizing, layoffs or restructuring. It didn't lose any major employers during the recession as so many other communities did.
“The aviation/aerospace industry stayed very strong here. The bioscience industry continued to grow. The energy industry did very well,” Williams says. “And we were creating jobs in the hospitality industry during all this time. Where most all other places were losing numbers, we actually have surpassed our retail employment numbers of pre-recession, and almost no other metropolitan area has gotten even close to that because they've had such significant impact on retail sales.”
Another boon is that unlike many metropolitan cities, Oklahoma City has not had to lay off city employees, policemen or firemen, or downsize public service.
“So each one of these in and of itself could not cause [being on so many 'best' lists] to happen, but when it all occurs simultaneously, you come up with this very vibrant community where entrepreneurism is thriving because of the strong economy,” Williams says. “Houses are being built, new retailers are coming into the market, phenomenal construction.”
KEEPING UP APPEARANCE
Both the national media and out-of-state visitors who stayed in town for NBA finals games came with little if any expectation, but they left thinking, “This is a pretty cool place,” Williams says.
“Not only are their fans crazy, but there's Bricktown, there's Downtown, there's the Oklahoma River, there are things going on in Oklahoma City that they don't see going on in other NBA cities they travel to. And they see a positive attitude of the citizens about their community,” he says.
In addition to all the development already seen in the metro area, visitors also witness cranes operating as construction continues on the arena, interstates and streets.
“Then you also have the $777 million in MAPS 3 that we haven't even started spending yet,” Williams says. “And people see the activity of SandRidge, and they go to the [Oklahoma City National] Memorial to see what we did to deal with that tragedy.”
In addition to the economic impact, the exposure and the reaction of people who had no idea what to expect when they arrived was more than favorable – “they were impressed with their experience,” he says.
“Ironically, the most resounding thing they talked about was the people: how friendly people were, how helpful they were, how genuine they were, and how enthusiastic they were about the Thunder, about their community, about their city, and about what was going on, and how we were building a better place; we weren't trying to save a place,” Williams says. “That kind of attitude is prevalent throughout the community: that this is really a great time in Oklahoma City's history.
“So when you continue to get those accolades, whatever they are, that suddenly sort of says you're real, you're not a flash in the pan, that you have something that you're sustaining, and that's really what it's all about: trying to retain that momentum,” he says. “Here's a city that has had momentum for years and continues that momentum and does things to maintain that momentum. That would be the best list to be on: the city with the most momentum.”
The rest of the best Business-Friendly Cities:
No. 2: Dallas-Fort Worth
No. 3: San Antonio
No. 4: Austin, Texas
No. 5: Atlanta
No. 6: Colorado Springs, Colo.
No. 7: Omaha, Neb.