Talent attraction in Oklahoma City

As we explored in our last post young professionals are concentrating in record numbers in vibrant central cities. Across the country––in red and blue states––state, regional, and city leaders understanding that where talent concentrates economic growth will follow, have made public investments in creating the kind of places that retain and attract recent college graduates a priority. Unfortunately Michigan isn’t one of those places.

One of the cities in a red state that gets it is Oklahoma City. I want to quote extensively from an article for American Infrastructure by its mayor Mick Cornett. It makes clear why talent retention and attraction matters and what needs to be done to be competitive. Well worth reading! Cornett writes:

Infrastructure has to be thought of as more than moving traffic quickly and efficiently through a city or ensuring a safe and adequate supply of water to our residents. While Oklahoma City excels at both, we discovered that to compete in the new world economy, we needed to invest in the types of infrastructure demanded by a young, mobile creative class.

For the better part of two decades, we lost many of our best and brightest as this highly-educated generation sought communities with a quality of place they didn’t find in Oklahoma City. We had a safe and sufficient water supply. We moved cars around town so well that there was little, if any, congestion. We had a low cost of living and some of the least expensive housing in the country.

But we’d failed to provide the type of infrastructure that creates a quality of place. Our downtown was designed to get people out of our urban core at a time when the young creative class was seeking an urban lifestyle. We lacked cultural, sports and educational amenities and supporting infrastructure.

The successful cities of the next couple of decades will be those cities that find the political will to invest in themselves. They will have green spaces and energetic, walkable downtowns. They will have quality public schools, vibrant arts and entertainment communities and will offer public transportation, state-of-the-art medical facilities and affordable housing.

These cities will become places where people will desire to work, live and play. And as these cities attract young people, highly educated professionals and active seniors, they will also attract businesses and employers looking for this type of talent pool.

Cornett goes on to explain how Oklahoma City made placemaking a priority. Three times in the last two decades city leadership has proposed and voters have approved a one cent increase in the sales tax to pay for placemaking public investments. One of the three to improve the local public schools. The latest set of investments was approved by voters in 2009. The mayor explains:

In 2009, the people of Oklahoma City chose, once again, to invest in their city through 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; and state-of-the-art senior health-and-wellness centers throughout the city.

At the same time, we’re approaching the final year of “Project 180,” a three-year, $140-million redesign / build of 180 acres of downtown streets, sidewalks, parks and plazas to improve appearance and make the central core more pedestrian friendly. The new streetscapes add landscaping, public art, marked bike lanes, decorative street lighting, and additional on-street parking spaces.

Oklahoma City, of course, is not alone in these kind of placemaking public investments. Alan Ehrenhalt details in his terrific book, The Great Inversion, that regions in so-called low tax, small government states have put aside their ideology to pass tax increases to make public investments to retain and attract young talent. (For more on the topic see this previous post.) Why? Because their political and business leadership know it essential to economic development.

Its time that our business and political leadership – particularly in metropolitan Detroit, Grand Rapids and Lansing – learn from Mayor Cornett and so many other cites and regions that public investments in a vibrant central city is an economic growth essential.



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