Wreaths adorn empty chairs, each memorializing a victim of the bombing.
Wreaths adorn empty chairs, each memorializing a victim of the bombing.

By Robert Rivard

Like you, when it comes to the Spurs, I’m a home town guy. Like you, I’m excited: I see Tim and Tony and Manu (and Pop) as a team of destiny, one that (light candle to the Virgin here) is on the verge of defending the “dynasty” crown that I and others bestowed on them after four NBA Championship titles — a run interrupted by the collapse against the Memphis Grizzlies last year.

But count me out for snarky media bashing of Oklahoma City. A smarter San Antonio would use the occasion of this exciting series against the Thunder to learn more about the 20-year metamorphosis of Oklahoma City as we labor toward  our own transformation in San Antonio. Before we count out Oklahoma City, let’s remember: This is truly a Comeback City. And I don’t mean the Thunder. More on that below.

No city ever improved its lot by mocking a regional rival. Yes, the occasion of the NBA Western Conference Finals triggers bread and circus rabble-rousing and the  media’s base instinct to attack the enemy while feeding and gratifying hometown spectators. Too bad by doing so we miss a more meaningful opportunity that could contribute to San Antonio’s future well-being far more than victory in a single playoff series.

Truth is, Oklahoma City is farther down the road San Antonio seeks to travel. They’ve been busy transforming their downtown for a lot longer and, frankly, it shows. San Antonio has more to work with: We are bigger, more economically and culturally diverse, and have a richer history than the Sooners. But Oklahoma City has been working longer and they’ve done so with greater unity. Just about everyone in Oklahoma City seems to understand that a more vibrant downtown means a more vibrant city for all. We are not there yet.

Oklahoma City had to get up off the ground and dust itself off before the current era of urban improvements took root. An earlier effort to revitalize Oklahoma City’s downtown in the 1960s and 1970s, lead by famed architect I.M. Pei, the so-called Pei Plan, was a failure. Many historic structures were razed, brick by red brick, to make way for a new urban core, but the promised residential and retail renaissance never happened. By the 1980s Oklahoma City was mired in the failure of its own unrealized ambitions.

I briefly met Oklahoma City Mayor Ron Norrick in the early 90s, and only later appreciated the hurdles he overcame to convince voters there in 1992 to set aside the rancor and ill will left over from the Pei Plan, and embrace his proposal for a new Metropolitan Area Projects initiative funded by sales taxes. Norrick prevailed, of course, and in 1993 the plan that would set Oklahoma City on the path to revitalizing its downtown was put in  place.

April 21, 1995: How many cities could recover from such devastation?
April 21, 1995: How many cities could recover from such devastation?

Everything was going the city’s way until April 19, 1995 when Oklahoma City suffered the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history prior to Sept. 11, 2011 when a bomb was set off at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, killing 168 people, injuring 680 more, damaging or destroying more than 300 buildings and causing nearly $700 million in property losses. Exactly five years later, Oklahoma City National Memorial opened on the bomb site. Every city today should ask itself: Would our city have responded as well as Oklahoma City?

(This paragraph has been updated…twice.) The downtown initiative continued, despite the epic tragedy. MAPS has raised hundreds of millions of dollars in sales tax revenues that were invested in downtown improvement projects, and it attracted hundreds of millions more in private investment. The first phase of MAPS ended in 2004 with the opening of the city’s new main library, but downtown investment continues to this day. After a second phase that focused on schools, MAPS 3 was approved in 2010. Over the next seven years it is expected to raise $777 million through a one cent sales tax increase. And then there is Project 180, a $160 million redesign of downtown streets to make them more bicycle and pedestrian friendly.

Retail and residential line the mile-long Bricktown Canal.

Flash back to events here in 1992: San Antonio was welcoming At&T’s decision to relocate here from St. Louis, and construction was being completed on the Alamodome amid intense community division. City voters had rejected proposals to build the city’s first reservoir, Applewhite, and anti-tax gadflies enjoyed more time on talk radio than elected officials. The nation’s most restive term limits were about to take root here. The  city seemed pulled in opposing directions, towards and away from progress and change. The “aginners” seemed to hold the momentum.

The MAPS plan led to the development of Bricktown, something San Antonio still does not have to this day, a viable downtown entertainment district that attracts locals and visitors alike. This former warehouse district just east of downtown is now the economic, cultural and entertainment engine of Oklahoma City. It’s defined by the mile-long Bricktown Canal, which takes you right to the minor league Bricktown Ballpark. The Thunder, of course, play at the Chesapeake Energy Arena.

Bricktown Ballpark in the heart of Bricktown.
Bricktown Ballpark in the heart of Bricktown.

Contrast the isolation of the AT&T Center on the East side and Wolff Stadium on the Southwest side in our city with these venues. Still laughing?

The Bricktown Canal might be artificial and might be the subject of jokes, but it was conceived by progressive forces in Oklahoma City who saw, specifically, how much the Paseo del Rio in San Antonio served as the foundation of a tourist and convention economy now worth an estimated $13 billion a year. I still remember during Mayor Bill Thornton’s administration in the mid-1990s traveling with a city-led delegation to Monterrey, where San Antonio engineers were overseeing an urban canal project similar to the one they were overseeing in Oklahoma City while also working on the expanded Convention Center stretch of the River Walk.

Oklahoma City, like San Antonio, is still a city trying to make its core central district one that will attract and keep smart, educated young people. Oklahoma City 20 years ago didn’t stand a chance. Now it does. So while the Spurs are taking on the Thunder, we can bait our Red River neighbors with cheap put-downs, or we can spend time between games learning from a regional sister city that can teach us a lot about vision, cohesiveness and tenacity — at least off the basketball court.

Wreaths adorn empty chairs, each memorializing a victim of the bombing.
Wreaths adorn empty chairs, each memorializing a victim of the bombing.

Want to read more? Try these Oklahoma City blogs:

A writer who’s never met a color she doesn’t like:

http://www.pencilshavingsstudio.com/

The Daily Oklahoma’s version of the Express-News’ Ben Olivo:

http://www.okccentral.com/

Want to know what the other team’s fans are saying and thinking?

http://www.welcometoloudcity.com/

OK City is filled with interesting young people. Here are some of them:

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor of the San Antonio Report.