Mayor Cornett delivered the tenth State of the City message on January 15, 2009.
As prepared for delivery
First of all, I want to thank the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce and the signature sponsor, Dorchester Capital, for hosting today’s event and for all that the Chamber does throughout the year. David and Roy, I am frequently in a position to witness the work of chambers from around the country and I can tell you that this Chamber is among the very best. I would like the Chamber staff that is here today to stand and be recognized.
And just in case the crowd today gets rowdy, I have seated my family down front. If there’s any booing or hissing, just know that my mother is likely to come after you. Would my wife Lisa and the rest of my family please stand.
And before we begin, let’s show our appreciation to those who prepared and served us lunch today. I am always amazed at the ability of a group of people to serve a thousand people at once. Please pass along our thanks to the crew in the back.
And finally, some very important thank yous. First of all, to our City Council.
Not all of them are here today, but some are, and I’d ask them to stand as I read their names, and please hold your applause till the end.
First of all, Gary Marrs, representing Ward One;
Sam Bowman, Ward Two;
Larry McAtee, Ward Three;
Pete White, Ward Four;
Brian Walters, Ward Five;
our newest Councilperson, Meg Salyer, representing Ward Six;
Skip Kelly, Ward Seven;
and Pat Ryan, Ward Eight.
Please remain standing, and would all of our City employees that made it today also stand? And now would anyone who serves on a City commission or trust please stand? Let’s give our Council, our City staff and our community volunteers a round of applause.
I want to begin today with this Twentieth Century quote from Oklahoma City native Ralph Ellison. This world-famous intellectual grew up just a few blocks to our East, in the Deep Deuce area. He once wrote, “When I discover who I am, I'll be free.” Now, Ralph didn’t have Oklahoma City in mind when he wrote that. But in many ways, I believe that 2008 is a year we will look back on and say that Oklahoma City discovered who it was. And with that knowledge comes the freedom to be the great city we can be.
Let me draw your attention to all the dramatic changes that this city has seen in the last ten years. From the opening of the Ballpark, the Ford Center, the Canal, the River, the Civic Center, the Norick Library, to all the stunning improvements that have been made in our schools as the result of MAPS for Kids. Take all of that and combine it into one visual image, culminating in the tremendous events of the past year. You will see a city that is re-inventing itself. But this Golden Age that discovered itself in 2008 is just beginning. Allow me to offer that the next ten years are shaping up to hold opportunities that are bigger and better than anything we’ve done.
In many ways, 2008 was the year that people around the world developed a concrete impression about us. Maybe it was the worldwide attention we generated in getting our own NBA team. Maybe it was the eye-opening thought that we’re actually relocating an interstate highway from one part of our downtown to another. Maybe it was because Devon announced its skyscraper. Or maybe it was because we were the city where the crazy mayor put everyone on a diet. But whether it was sports or transportation, skyscrapers, or battling obesity, we were noticed. And generally for all the right reasons.
Perhaps no attention, though, was more validating than when the nation’s leading economic magazine, Forbes, selected us over every other community in the country as the most recession proof city in the United States. That’s a big deal. In fact, if we had been in the top 20 on a list like that, you would hear me talking about how impressive it is. Now, we know that no city is recession proof, but when they say we are the “most” recession proof, that’s probably right. And so far, it is true.
In fact, despite the tremendous amount of doom and gloom that dominates the national headlines, our economy is still growing. Our real estate prices are still increasing, and our rates of foreclosures are extremely low. In Oklahoma City, most people cannot only afford a house but they can afford to stay in that house. And they can do it without the fancy, often irresponsible, creative financing that helped send the nation’s economy spiraling out of control.
Our unemployment rate continues to be among the best in the nation. In fact, last week, we tied with Washington, D.C. for having the lowest unemployment rate in the nation in November. In the last five years, we have gained over 72,000 new jobs in the metro area.
In the last five years, we have gained over 72,000 new jobs in the metro area.
Take a look at this map generated in the fourth quarter of last year by the New York Times.
The bigger the city, the bigger the dot. These are cities that in their words, are in trouble.
Now look at this map. These are cities where the economy is growing.
If you updated the map today, I imagine some of these cities would no longer make this chart, but we would probably still be on it.
Let’s think back to the 1980s: things in the local banking industry weren’t so good. In Oklahoma, over one hundred banks closed their doors. There was no massive federal bailout for us. In this current economic crisis, banks have failed around the world. But the number of failed banks in Oklahoma City as a result of this crisis is: zero. The number of failed banks in the state of Oklahoma as a result of this crisis is: zero.
Now, with the rest of the world dealing with such severe economic issues, it is only fair for us to acknowledge that our envious position should be valued and protected. And at City Hall we are asking those in charge of our City government’s finances to maintain the same conservative principles that got us here.
But these repercussions are being felt at City Halls around the nation. This month, there are dozens of mayors standing in front of assemblies much like this one, explaining to their constituents why they must cut back on services or raise taxes. Fortunately, I am not giving that speech today.
So, the question before us is this: In a Golden Age for our city, while our economy is more than holding its own, while most of the rest of the country, in both the public and private sectors, is dealing with massive debt and in many cases bankruptcy, what do we do?
As I said, other cities will cut back or raise taxes. They are, in many cases, going to close parks and stop investing in their infrastructure. Their progressive ideas about public transit and green initiatives will drop down the priority list.
But we are not in that situation. We don’t need to be closing parks. We don’t need to slow down the investment in our infrastructure. And instead of shelving ideas about public transit, I say, now is the time to ramp up the conversation. And let’s make sure the world knows, that as the nation’s energy supply slowly transitions from fossil fuels to more sustainable forms of energy, that Oklahoma City intends to remain a leader in the energy industry.
In short, there is every reason for us to take note of the economic calamity that is infecting much of the world, but there is no reason for us to stop what we’re doing and change course. We didn’t get in this lofty position by accident. We got here because we planned and we invested. And along the way, each of us in this community has worked really hard. Our momentum is taking on speed, and we are not going to stop now. The state of this city might be stronger than any other city in the United States.
In our development as a city, we have taken many of the right steps already. In just the last decade, we’ve invested in public safety, water, our schools and our street infrastructure. And upon that foundation, we’ve also focused on building a city where people want to live. In fact, when you look at what we have and how far we’ve come in adding and improving amenities like libraries, sports arenas, music halls, canals and a river you see many of the reasons why the quality of life in Oklahoma City has so dramatically improved and so many jobs have been created.
The physical changes of the city are exciting and easy to see. The cultural changes are less visible but just as exciting. And we are no longer in the beginning stages but a couple of steps down the road toward making this a more pedestrian-friendly community. We are creating a city for people as opposed to cars. We are also in the beginning stages of a cultural shift in the way we view obesity. We have acknowledged we have a problem and we are addressing it. It is now a topic for discussion. And we have determined that it is “not OK” for a city to have an obesity rate in excess of 25 percent. Those two cultural changes, creating a pedestrian friendly city and addressing our health, are compatible. Cultural changes don’t happen quickly but if we have enough determination, and I believe we do, we can make these cultural shifts permanent.
But today, I am here to tell you that there is much work to be done. And while our momentum is still moving, and our position relative to the rest of the United States is strong, now is not the time to slow down.
So now let us view the city with fresh eyes, concentrating not so much on what we have but what we don’t have. To begin with, look around the country. From a quality of life perspective, there are two high profile shortcomings, two areas that, if addressed, would dramatically further our ascension as a city where people want to live.
The first is public transportation. The second is a centrally located, large public park. Let me expand on these two topics.
Providing quality public transit in Oklahoma City is a difficult task. We were built around the automobile, and as a result, we are spread out. We don’t have the density to easily do it well. We don’t have the density to do it efficiently. So, we have built-in excuses. We have developed into a city where if you don’t own a car, you are out of luck. But if we truly want to progress as a city, we have to do better.
I have told you that in these addresses before. During my five years in office, I have used this platform to push this conversation forward. Today, I am here to tell you that the time has arrived to take another step.
I urge each of you to check out the Fixed Guideway Study that provides our blueprint for a 21st Century transit system. It can be found at on the Internet at www.okfgs.org.
Fully implemented, it calls for a greatly enhanced bus system, including Bus Rapid Transit, and there are also light rail and downtown streetcar components. This blueprint is complete. You may recall we spent a year and a half on the study.
We now know enough to get started, and there are a number of places we can start. But the key is that we need to get started. Not so much for today, because we are not in a public transit crisis. But transit programs take years, if not decades, to implement. Most cities wait until their highways are at gridlock before they begin taking action. Our city has a history of planning for the future, and now is the time to get started. It will take vision from each and every one of us. When gas if affordable and traffic runs smoothly, it can be difficult to gather support for public transit. I will need your help.
The large central park in the Core to Shore project is also critical to our city’s future, and necessary to our ability to adapt to the relocation of Interstate 40. A year ago, in this State of the City address, I showed you the first conceptual images of the Core to Shore project.
Since then you’ve seen them in many other places, and you’ve probably followed the announcement of the first signature project, the Oklahoma City SkyDance pedestrian bridge over the new I-40.
We have never built anything like this before in Oklahoma City, and this bridge will become an iconic image for the millions of motorists who pass through our city. Let this be the first signal that we are serious about Core to Shore, and it also serves notice that we are raising the standards for design in this city. But there is much more to Core to Shore.
The Core to Shore plan is the result of a large and inclusive civic planning process, and it illustrates the benefits of building a large central park that connects the core of downtown to the shore of the Oklahoma River. Also central to the project is the at-grade boulevard that will replace the current I-40. This boulevard won’t just be a street that gets you from point A to point B. With this boulevard, we have the opportunity to create one of the most special streets in the United States.
This opportunity comes upon us because of the relocation of I-40. That relocation will remove the physical barrier that has separated downtown from the River and everything in between. Now, we have the opportunity few cities ever get. We can create a new urban center, just blocks from our central business district. The park and the boulevard are the lynchpins, and they serve as the catalyst for future retail, housing, and a potential Convention Center, which I’ll discuss in a moment.
A fully programmed urban park that ties to the Myriad Gardens and retail development along the new boulevard will be yet another eye-popping signal that Oklahoma City is moving forward. Combined with a public transit system that we can be proud of, a citywide sidewalk program that is already under construction, and a growing trend toward density in the inner-city, the park can be another giant step towards creating the pedestrian-friendly community that we desire. The timeline is doable. Keep in mind, the interstate should be relocated in 2012. The resulting boulevard that will be built along the current interstate alignment should be in place by 2014. The park, ideally, needs to be ready at the same time, roughly five years from now. But like an expansion of public transit, the park is not currently funded.
Together, better public transit and the creation of the Core to Shore park are significant “quality of life” amenities. You have heard me say before that nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come. I suggest that for transit and the Core to Shore park, that time has come.
The only decisions left are how we proceed and how soon.
And while these two initiatives are focused directly on the quality of life for our residents, we have a third important opportunity that focuses directly on our economy and indirectly on job creation. And that is a resolution to our undersized, and thus underutilized, convention center. We are in it today. This building was constructed in 1972 and was last improved in 1999. In 1999, we had one downtown hotel and it wasn’t doing all that well. Now we are soon to have seven downtown hotels and counting. And it appears they are all healthy. But we are currently losing convention business we could otherwise obtain because of the size of this facility.
Now, that didn’t stop us from securing a lot of other events. Let me mention two. Coming up this year in March is the American Choral Directors Association national meeting, which is bringing 4,000 people to Oklahoma City. And next year, the 2010 gathering of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. You know, I think my fellow mayors were just so sick of hearing me talk about Oklahoma City – that it couldn’t possibly be as great as I claim - that they finally just had to come see it for themselves. But that meeting, scheduled to occur in June, 2010, though large in influence, is not numerically much larger than the number of people gathered in this room. But there are dozens of other conventions that attract many thousands of people that we could also host, except that we don’t have the convention facilities. Everything else is in place. We have built a city that groups and organizations want to visit, but we don’t have room for them.
And tourism is a wonderful way to boost your local economy because it takes dollars that were generated somewhere else and it deposits them in your community. Listen to this – tourism in the last year for which we have data brought in 6.6 million visitors to Oklahoma City and accounted for 1.2 billion dollars in economic impact. That type of economic growth creates jobs, and not just tourism jobs, but jobs throughout the community. And our tourism is growing every year.
Our experience with MAPS in the 1990s taught us many things and perhaps above all, it taught us the wisdom of investing in ourselves. One thing we learned, however, is that by paying cash and building the projects as the dollars accumulate through sales tax, as opposed to taking on debt through a bond issue, it takes quite a while to get things built. MAPS was passed in 1993 and the final project, the Ron Norick Library, opened in 2004. Eleven years later. That kind of time lapse is another reason to put a new convention center on our list of priorities now. If we decided to vote on a MAPS 3 initiative in the next year or two, it would most likely be at least ten years from now before that convention center would open. By then, our convention center will be nearly 50 years old. It’s hard to argue with the theory that you need to replace your convention center every 50 years. In the Core to Shore planning process, the committee reserved a spot for a new convention center that would be near the boulevard and near the park. I believe we are approaching the time when we need to pursue that reality.
These three items are not the only good ideas. We also need to make some improvements along our outstanding and ever-growing river. In fact, each of us could come up with a list of items for MAPS 3, and thanks to our open idea process in 2007, you did. You may recall, two years ago in this address, we put out the call for entries. Over the next four months, we received over 2,700 ideas, 668 of which focused on transit. Each of your ideas probably has merit. But let’s just not forget the priorities: transit, the Core to Shore park, and the convention center. These ideas are fully-formed, they will continue our renaissance at the same pace we have grown accustomed to, and their time has come.
All indications are that the vast majority of people in this community want to go forward. That same web site recorded that over 85 percent of respondents said they wanted to pursue a MAPS 3. It is evident that this community still has needs, and it still has ambitions. MAPS has been the vehicle for our progress, and it should remain so. But exactly ‘when’ we move forward is less clear, and that’s the conversation we’ll be having over the course of the next few months. We will come to a community consensus no later than the end of this coming summer. MAPS 3 is no longer a distant dream. The opportunity to continue this city’s momentum is before us. The opportunity to create jobs for the next generation, and therefore to keep our kids and grandkids in Oklahoma City is approaching.
I have spent the past few minutes talking about spending, but you should know, we are continuing to be conservative with our budgets at City Hall. But investments we made through MAPS for Kids and the 2007 City bond issue for streets are continuing to be implemented, and the progress is speeding up. At its completion, the 2007 bond issue will have invested over 540 million dollars into our City streets, and another almost 300 million dollars into our infrastructure. The MAPS for Kids sales tax may have elapsed two weeks ago, but the construction will continue for several more years.
We will continue building schools in our MAPS for Kids program. Right now, today, we have eight projects completed, 16 more are under construction, and 30 more are in the design phase. We have completed many of the higher profile projects, including new high schools at Douglass, U.S. Grant, John Marshall and Centennial. And as the program transitions to a heavier emphasis on elementary schools in 2009, we will have construction crews at schools all over the metro area. We are not stopping to catch our breath, we are continuing to invest in our schools, and we are investing in our kids.
We are entering an era over the next five years in which the dynamic growth of Oklahoma City will be more visible than ever. Visitors will not be able to ignore the size and scope of the I-40 relocation, and the resulting construction of the new boulevard. The improvements that we are making at the Ford Center will become more and more evident over the next few months. Millions will witness the majesty of the Devon Tower slowly reaching higher and higher into the sky. And closer to the ground, we will watch with anticipation the vast number of schools that continue to be improved with MAPS for Kids.
We have become a generation that no longer just dreams about what it could do. We have become a generation that does. And anyone that travels to Oklahoma City over the next few years is going to witness eye-popping projects. Can you imagine more high profile projects than: one, a massive upgrade of your NBA arena, two, the relocation of an interstate and construction of a new downtown boulevard, and three, the construction of a 925-foot skyscraper, the fifth-tallest building west of the Mississippi.
All of this is in addition to new roads and bridges, new schools, new parks, new libraries, new fire stations, new pedestrian friendly sidewalks and streetscapes. And these are not items on a wish-list, these are funded projects.
Meanwhile, there are stories of challenges, successes and opportunities all over this City, and they’re not just the kind that change the world. Sometimes, they just change lives.
Just recently, the City Rescue Mission graduated one hundred men and women in its Bridge to Life program. The program is a perfect example of citizens seeking the help they need to create a better life for themselves and their families. It wasn’t an easy journey and it didn’t happen overnight, but many of them now have a car and a job. And if they continue to work hard, they’ll likely have a promising future. Those of you who invested in this city by donating to the City Rescue Mission helped make it happen. By the way, there are one hundred more in the program right now.
We could also use that generosity at our 2-1-1 center. 2-1-1 is the phone number to call when you need help and don’t really know whom to call. People who need help with issues involving mental illness or domestic violence can call 2-1-1 and they will get directed to the resources available. In times of economic stress, 2-1-1 can be a valuable resource to see what help is available. 2-1-1 needs volunteers and they can always use money for operations. I believe if more people knew about 2-1-1 we could cut down on the number of times our police officers were called into action to deal with mental illness and domestic violence. We need people to seek help earlier. 2-1-1 is a great system to get people the help they need. It doesn’t cost the caller anything, but that’s why it needs your support.
Meanwhile, our police department is more active than ever in combating truancy. We believe that our new initiative which works with the schools and gets the police more actively involved can, in turn, get families more engaged in their kids’ education. We’ve got to keep kids in school. A kid on the streets, either as a truant or a drop-out, is much more likely to wind up in prison or worse. We are committed to battling truancy and the resulting social consequences.
Our police department is impressive. And although crime statistics have to be viewed carefully with a discerning eye, here are two undeniable facts: Our homicide rate declined in 2008, and the number of drive-by shootings declined in 2008. We have no tolerance for crime. We fight it 24 hours a day, we fight it seven days a week, we fight it 12 months a year. As many of you have heard me say, it doesn’t matter how many NBA teams you have, if you don’t feel safe in your own neighborhood, you are not going to have a very high quality of life.
Despite what you may hear, the state and this city are doing better in education. There are lots of success stories at the university level and more kids are attending Pre-K and kindergarten classes. These are positive steps. In Oklahoma City, we have reason to be proud of our high school graduation rates. We studied the 24 districts and private schools serving kids who live in Oklahoma City and found that our graduation rate mirrors the state rate. It’s difficult to prove because graduation rates are rarely broken down from one city to the next, but I believe we are one of the very few large cities in the country where our high school graduation rate reflects the state average. In city after city, the rate is lower in big cities than it is in rural areas and small and medium size cities. In Oklahoma City that is not the case. Kids are graduating.
We are making significant progress in animal welfare. We have growing relationships with charitable organizations that have allowed us to increase our efforts to spay and neuter dogs and cats. And finally, the numbers of animals being euthanized from year to year is declining, and adoptions are up.
At City Hall, we are working on new ways to fund ambulance service, new ways to get homeless people into permanent housing, new ways to provide parking in downtown, new ways to be green, and new ways to expand Amtrak service.
And we continue to maintain our reputation for compassion. In September, when a hurricane hit the coast, we hosted 1,700 people in an emergency evacuation.
Let me conclude by revisiting the health initiative that we began one year ago.
You’ll recall, our goal was to encourage each other to place a higher priority on our health. And we created and promoted a website to help facilitate our efforts to fight obesity. The website is at www.thiscityisgoingonadiet.com and the results are nothing short of incredible. Almost 26,000 people have signed up, pledging to lose weight. They have combined to lose over 306,000 pounds. That’s about 11 pounds apiece. The website has had visits from all 50 states and over 100 different countries. In one day alone, the website was visited by 150,000 different visitors. People are keeping an eye on us.
I want to thank the media for helping us to publicize the website, because the tremendous coverage is driving more and more people to seek help. For whatever reason, this initiative has caught on and is gaining traction. Obesity is a nationwide problem but we are committed to doing better. We still have a lot of work to do. The statistics indicate we have over 300,000 obese people in the Oklahoma City area. So, there’s a lot of people that could still go to the website and work on a healthier lifestyle. It is not just for individuals, it is also set up to handle groups, so your business or your church can easily get involved.
Our message in this second year of the program is simple. For whatever reason if you didn’t choose to take part in 2008, consider going to the website and taking part in 2009. The time to lose weight is not when the mayor says. The time is when you are ready. When you are ready, this community and this web site will be there for you. Again, the address is www.thiscityisgoingonadiet.com.
2008 was a really important year for us. It will always be remembered as the year we truly believed that we were major league, and through that process we discovered who we were. The NBA team, the announcement of our newest skyscraper, and for the first time, one of our Oklahoma City kids even won the Heisman.
The world is taking note about all of the great things we have taking place here.
We have been seeking this higher platform for a long time. We have been striving for a more visible stage to illustrate our ability to perform and create jobs in a world class city.
Virtually every other city in the United States is having to make changes. They are lowering their services, they are lowering their standards, they are lowering their expectations. We’re not them. We need to keep doing what we’re doing: be fiscally conservative, dream big, and work hard. I am proud to be your mayor.
Thank you for what you do every day and thank you for coming this afternoon.