The Power of a Penny

Posted by Spalding Hurst

February 18, 2013

From The Courier-Journal, Oklahoma City gets it.

“our incentives were as good, or better, than the competition. They simply didn’t think their employees would want to live here.”

“The river — formerly a ditch that we mowed twice a year — is now filled with water and the site of a world-class U.S. Olympic rowing/canoe/kayak training center.”

“The third MAPS program features a 70-acre central park linking the core of downtown with the Oklahoma River … hike-and-bike trails; river improvements, including a public whitewater kayaking facility … All of these projects are moving forward.”

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FULL ARTICLE

In the course of two decades, Oklahoma City’s residents have voted to enhance our community with a series of tax-funded initiatives we have branded “Metropolitan Area Projects,” or MAPS. These projects have transformed and continue to redefine Oklahoma City’s downtown and led to billions of dollars of private investment.

They have helped stop the outflow of our best and brightest young people to other communities, and we have statistical and anecdotal evidence that we are now attracting young creative professionals from other communities.

This wasn’t always the case.

Twenty-five years ago, we were competing for businesses with a toolbox full of attractive financial incentives and were coming up short. We asked for a candid appraisal from a company that chose to locate elsewhere and were told that our incentives were as good, or better, than the competition. They simply didn’t think their employees would want to live here.

That hurt. We knew we had great people, a low cost of living, good schools and were considered a great place to raise a family. But we lacked the quality-of-life amenities that separate good cities from great cities.

We decided to change that.

The MAPS concept defines capital projects to be funded by a penny sales tax. The tax has a start and end date and the projects are paid for in cash, without incurring debt.

In 1993, the first MAPS vote proposed the construction of a 20,000-seat, indoor sports arena; construction of a 15,000-seat downtown ballpark; construction of a new downtown library; construction of the Bricktown Canal; development of a trolley transit system; development along the North Canadian River; and renovations to the Civic Center Music Hall, Cox Convention Center and Oklahoma State Fairgrounds.

It was an unprecedented endeavor for the community. While it narrowly passed, it was ultimately a huge success that paved the way for Oklahoma City’s current renaissance.

Today, Bricktown’s canals, restaurants and hotels make it the most popular and lively entertainment district in the region. The river — formerly a ditch that we mowed twice a year — is now filled with water and the site of a world-class U.S. Olympic rowing/canoe/kayak training center. The ballpark is home to the Houston Astros’ AAA team and the indoor sports arena is home to the Oklahoma City Thunder, one of the most successful franchises in professional sports and definitely the hottest ticket in town.

The second MAPS initiative, 2001’s “MAPS for Kids,” was a $700 million program that constructed or renovated more than 100 Oklahoma City-area schools. With the addition of a $180 million bond issue and an eye on addressing childhood obesity issues, new gymnasiums were added to all of the Oklahoma City elementary schools.

More recently, residents elected to invest in their city through 2009’s MAPS 3, an ambitious $777 million plan that dramatically changes the face of downtown Oklahoma City.

The third MAPS program features a 70-acre central park linking the core of downtown with the Oklahoma River; a modern streetcar system; a new convention center; miles of new sidewalks and hike-and-bike trails; river improvements, including a public whitewater kayaking facility; senior health and wellness centers throughout the city; and improvements to the State Fair Park public buildings, meeting halls and exhibit spaces. All of these projects are moving forward. Several are in design phase. Funding is in place and all will be completed.

We are frequently asked how, in the reddest of states, we have been able to pass three consecutive tax-funded MAPS programs in what appears to be an anti-tax environment. What we discovered is most people aren’t opposed to taxes — they are opposed to bad management of public money and having taxes forced on them.

We’ve entered an age when local communities need to invest in themselves. Federal and state dollars are becoming increasingly scarce for American cities. Local political and civic leaders need to make a compelling case for this investment and states across the country need to give local governments the authority to hold sales tax elections and help determine their own destiny.

We empowered our residents by letting them determine their level of taxation. We told them what we would do with their money and let them decide if they wanted to fund it with a penny sales tax. In relatively strong numbers they have chosen to do so.

In almost every case, the completed MAPS projects have exceeded expectations. As a result, Oklahoma City now exceeds the expectations of those who visit or move here.

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