Economy, weather, anti-discrimination ordinance lead list of 2011’s top Oklahoma City stories

Oklahoma City roared out of the Great Recession in 2011, and that is Oklahoma City’s top news story for 2011. 

Further down the list is the flipside to economic vibrancy: fits and starts in street repairs and other work, as well as the troubled start to the NBA season for the beloved Thunder.

The list was compiled for The City Sentinel newspaper. (The top state government stories, compiled for CapitolBeatOK, will be posted later this week.)

Other top stories for Oklahoma City were shared with the state as a whole, including weather, election of the first all-Republican slate of statewide officers and the first female chief executive. 

Stories about diversity, school infrastructure improvements nearing completion, a leading liberal or “progressive” voice on the city council, the Occupy OKC movement, Oklahoma City University’s surge to excellence and litigious clashes over city water use and tribal rights round out the top 10. 

Economic vitality the top story in Oklahoma City

The Urban Institute recently pegged Oklahoma City the nation’s top city for economic security. The analysis from Margery Austin Turner, appeared in mid-December on the institute’s MetroTrends Blog. 

In her analysis, Turner writes that somehow our city “avoided the excesses of the boom years, and its economy has weathered the downturn better than most. 

Housing costs are low, and though wages are too, a personal service worker can almost afford the rent for a two-bedroom apartment. And at 5 percent, Oklahoma City’s unemployment rate is among the lowest in the country.”

Economic analysis is nice, but tangible signs are even better: low unemployment, real growth, and the return of discouraged workers to the job market. Buildout of the Chesapeake campus continues. Downtown, another oil giant, Sandridge, is “fixin’ to move into a new house.” That’s actually the reburbished Kerr-McGee facilities. Then there’s Devon Tower, tallest building in the state and the only major “skyscraper” project in the region. 

Often remarked in the city’s rise is MAPS, the voter-approved government expenditures which have triggered private investments in the city’s core and across the metropolitan area.

In a visual age, quality images can surpass quality content. Footwear giant Nike delighted Oklahomans with a campaign featuring places local residents as they are “hanging out,” playing hoops or “just chillin’.”

Thunder star Kevin Durant is portrayed in the ad, wandering the city at night in his SUV, playing pick-up ball atop the parking garage at 22nd and Western, in the nearby lot at First Presbyterian 

Church on 25th, at Taft Middle School, in a Love’s parking lot, and at a nursing home gym. Then, he cruises through the night with a vehicle full of old folks laughing and high-fiving. The ad ends as the young transplanted Texan drives along Robinson or Exchange, searching the city that never sleeps.

Oklahoma City is a great place to live. Now, everybody else is figuring that out. That is the top local story of 2011. 
Will Rogers was right about Oklahoma’s weather diversity – and our people

Oklahoma’s favorite son, Will Rogers, memorably said, “If you don’t like the weather in Oklahoma, wait a minute.” In the midst of record-breaking heat and drought, there were occasional floods, a flurry of tornadoes and thunder storms, November rains that partially replenished the parched soil – and earthquakes. To be sure, sub-surface tremors are not technically “weather,” but that did not keep locals from putting all of it together to marvel over shocking, even Biblical, extremes. 

Weather is the second top local story for 2011.

Number three goes to the city’s increasing diversity, highlighted in historic passage of an anti-discrimination ordinance by the City Council. After weeks of discussion, members of the Council were respectful as they debated the measure to add sexual orientation/preference to protected classes in city government employment. Public comments were contentious, and in the aftermath of the debate audiotapes of threats to a conservative preacher gained national attention.

 A 7-2 majority approved the prescription posed by Dr. Ed Shadid, who encouraged members of the Council to let the city be a good employer, and let God judge behavior. 

Diversity was not manifested only in government action, of course. The scene of two Chabad Jewish rabbinical students cruising city streets in a Hanukkah mobile – memorialized in a page one photo in the local daily – illustrated the point in terms of faith communities. Then came news that nearly half of the City’s public school students are Hispanic. 

Rounding out this point, diversity is reflected in the evolving tastes and choices of our people. The City has some of the best steakhouses in the country, and good old American food now includes Asian and other fare with roots in every corner of the planet. Whole Foods opened on the west side of the Chesapeake Energy campus, and smaller organic grocers like Forward Foods are bringing back to this agricultural state products of the past – locally originated and “naturally” manufactured. 

Were he with us today, the tolerant savant from Oologah, Will Rogers, would no doubt walk the streets of Oklahoma City, smiling at people and products, saying anew he never met a man he didn’t like. 
Better school buildings, and a new political era

MAPS for Kids projects have reached their final year. By the end of 2012, barring delays, the taxes and tenacity of Oklahoma City’s people will have another tangible manifestation. The fourth top story is the flurry of building dedications, groundbreakings, and final planning meetings for school sites in every corner of Oklahoma City. 

In November 2001, city voters approved a combination of property taxes and sales taxes totaling $700 million for what is still the largest voter-approved infusion of new revenues for education in state history. Accumulated resources have or soon will finance the massive program to completion – without debt. In the end, every student in the Oklahoma City public school district will be attending school in a new or renovated facility. The next job, of course, is to improve the quality of education in those buildings; perhaps the subject of a future “top 10.” 

In fifth place on this annual compilation is Oklahoma’s new political era, playing itself out daily in news from this capital city.

The venerable Rogers used to say, “I’m not a member of any organized political party – I’m a Democrat.” Whether it was disorganization, a more appealing alternative political philosophy or simply voter preferences for change, the first full year after the historic Republican surge to power ratified in 2010 is, in this “government town,” among the most consequential news stories of the new Century.

The particulars include Mary Fallin, a veteran politician who got to the top the old-fashioned way, paying dues in the Legislature, as lieutenant government, through a stint in Congress, and with a dominant campaign to win the top job. Her philosophy and the diverse conservatism of her legislative allies are a formula both for change and conflict – and this past year much of the conflict was within Republican ranks. 

Broader conditions limited state government spending, and now the Grand Old Party’s elected officials wonder if it is time to “right-size” government, returning some functions to the private sector. 
The rest: Thunder and street turmoil, Dr. Shadid, Occupy OKC, OCU and prelude to water wars

Sixth top story of the year, at least in this corner, was the flip side of a strong economy. The Thunder came, went, and then returned for a long-delayed National Basketball Association season, with millions of dollars in lost revenue to local businesses and, not coincidentally, tax coffers.

City streets have been torn up since about the third day of creation – or, at least, that’s the view of many downtown workers and residents. Project 180 will fall short of objectives, and some observers wonder whether the government can finish MAPS 3 on time and within budget.

The seventh top story of the year is the emergence of Dr. Ed Shadid as a city leader for “progressive” or liberal causes. Shadid’s personal wealth and political message carried him to a strong victory in the Ward 2 race.

He has emerged as a critic of some policies, and a defender of others. His work on urban sprawl, spending priorities and other issues has consolidated support. He led the push for one of the most significant changes in local law, passage of anti-discrimination language in the city employment code.

Shadid is now, to be sure, a player.

The Occupy Wall Street movement was a national phenomenon that at times dominated press coverage. Locally, relations between city officials (including police) and the Occupy leadership were sometimes tense, but more respectful and anti-confrontational than almost anywhere else in America. Members of Occupy OKC gained often sympathetic news coverage, and a few critics, making them the eighth top local story. 

Despite the death of one “occupier,” Occupy OKC’s time in Kerr Park downtown passed without the violence that marked events in Oakland and other cities. Eventually, the adjacent Sandridge construction project moved into final phases, and the city moved to oust the encampment. City officials won in court, and activists left peacefully, with both sides emulating in their own way that often-hailed “Oklahoma standard” of civility. The movement’s messages of concern over economics and social conditions left a legacy in coffee conversations, kitchen table debates and workplace dialogue. 

In 2010, the selection of then-U.S. Appeals Court Judge Robert Henry as the new president of Oklahoma City University was listed as The City Sentinel’s top story. The continued rise to excellence at the Methodist-affiliated private college still resides among the top 10 local news stories. 

Henry formally took on the job this year after an inaugural gala that featured nationally-acclaimed speakers, memorable arts performances and explicit appeals for Divine guidance. 

At year’s end, Steven Agee left chairmanship of the Oklahoma City branch of the federal reserve to take the reins of the Meiders School of Business. Word came that next year, federal Magistrate Judge Valerie Couch will leave the bench to become dean of the OCU law school. The day will come in Oklahoma when lists of “firsts” will be filled, but among the notable things about Couch’s switch to OCU is this: she will be the first woman dean of a law school in Oklahoma history. 

OCU’s nursing program stepped up a notch with new facilities and programs. 

The women’s wrestling team remained best in America. OCU rocks. 

The tenth top story of the year centers on the tension and turmoil building around water policy. While theoretically a battle between the state government and powerful tribal governments, there is more to the tale. The City’s rights to water in a southeast Oklahoma basin, and to transport of that water through a pipeline taxpayers financed, was put at risk in a lawsuit filed by the Chickasaw and Choctaw Nations. 

Rarely mentioned but worthy of note is the assertion of aboriginal rights for the Caddo Nation. In the end, aboriginal could trump treaty rights, even if many want to ignore the issue. The local water trust has sued to assert its prerogatives. 

Troubled waters, indeed.

Those are the ten stories of 2011, with explanation of this writer’s rationale.
Note: Patrick B. McGuigan, editor of CapitolBeatOK, also writes regularly for The City Sentinel, a weekly newspaper. McGuigan’s listing of the top 10 state government stories will appear during the last week of December 2011.