Oklahoma City’s Top 10 stories: Devon makes history, OCU expands, and the Thunder rolls

OKLAHOMA CITY – As is the case most years, there was good news and bad news for the heart of Oklahoma City in 2012. After consultation with writers and friends of the newspaper, the editors for The City Sentinel newspaper compiled this list of what we consider the top 10 news trends or events of the past 12 months.

The top story of the year for Oklahoma City is completion of the Devon Tower in downtown Oklahoma City, and the decision of energy and business titan Larry Nichols to retire. 

Employees have occupied the Devon Tower for several months, but only in the last two months have local residents been able to access the top of the facility for banquets, fundraisers and various gala events. Awestruck with an unmatched panoramic view of central Oklahoma from atop the structure, Oklahomans have quickly settled on the Tower to symbolize the city’s growth and hopes for a bright future.

In early December Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce hosted a luncheon address at which Nichols and vice president Klay Kimker described the historic process through which a 1.8 million-square-foot, 50-story corporate tower was completed safely and quickly. It is an impressive tale that will be retold for generations to come.

Nichols will retire as a Devon employee on Monday (Dec. 31), but remain on the company’s board of directors as executive chairman.

His multiple roles in building Devon into a major national and international “player” in oil discovery and development — while retaining the city as the firm’s home base and building the tallest skyscraper in the Sooner State — assure Larry Nichols a permanent place of honor in local and state history.

The second top story for The City Sentinel is Oklahoma City economic growth. The city and surrounding state have long had good workers, good locations and low costs. Now our state is in the top three for personal income growth, and Oklahoma City has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation – and in any given month might turn up in first place in various indexes of positive economic news.

In third place is the continued surge to excellence unfolding at Oklahoma City University. OCU is now ranked No. 1 in Oklahoma and 39th out of 100 in the nation, on Kiplinger’s 2012-13 List of Best Value Private Colleges.

The OCU Board of Trustees recently voted unanimously to purchase the historic Central High Building in downtown Oklahoma City, where the Methodist-affiliated institution will establish a downtown campus for the OCU School of Law.

“This is a significant move for our university that will enhance our law school, tie us to Oklahoma City’s momentum, create new opportunities for students, and expand programs by adding much-needed space on campus,” OCU President Robert Henry said. OCU also held the investiture ceremony for Dean Valerie Couch. Dean Couch is the first woman and the first federal judge to move into the law school’s leadership role.

Our fourth top story of the year is less upbeat. Oklahoma City public schools earned a “D” grade on the state Department of Education assessment of public school systems in Oklahoma. The Tulsa school district had the same low rank, although problems there are seemingly even more intractable than in the capital city.

News of the bad rank came even as the historic MAPS for KIDS projects neared completion. In 2001, city voters approved the largest local tax hike in Oklahoma history devoted to public schools. A combination of sales and property taxes, the program financed infrastructure improvements throughout the city.

However, the nice exteriors and state-of-the-art data systems in local schools are not resulting in better academic performance.

A searing scandal at Frederick A. Douglass High School has put in doubt the prospects for a majority of the senior class to complete class requirements in time for graduation next spring. This week, district officials announced plans for night school and intersessions to assist many of the students in reaching benchmarks required for their high school degrees.

Our fifth top story is completion of preliminary work on the MAPS 3 city improvement projects, including:

• A new downtown convention center to replace a nearly 50-year-old facility
• A 70-acre downtown public park
• A rail-based streetcar system to service downtown and the vicinity with connections to other rail-based systems and/or a multi-modal transit hub
• Oklahoma River improvements to enhance its existing profile as a global center for training and competition in rowing
• Senior health and wellness centers that support active lifestyles for seniors
• Construction of miles of walking, cycling, and running trails
• Construction of miles of new sidewalks to promote citywide walkability.

In the coming year, clear signs of the projects, made possible after this year’s opening of a rerouted Interstate 40 to the near Southside, will be evident.  

Oklahoma is a Red State in presidential politics, and Republicans dominate the state government at every level. But Oklahoma City has a blue heart in the MidTown and MidCity area, where Democrats have held their own in legislative races.

The election of state Rep. Al McAffrey to the state Senate, as the first openly gay member of that chamber, is just one manifestation of the continued strength of progressive and liberal Democrats in the heart of our town.

This local progressive strength is our sixth top story of the year; it manifests itself not only in political outcomes but in the continued determination of many local leaders to advocate for implementation of the Affordable Care Act, pressing Gov. Fallin and her allies to reverse their decisions opposing the legislation’s provisions.

Mayor Mick Cornett has guided the city government to an honored niche among the nation’s large metropolitan areas, our seventh top story of the year. Among the latest recognitions, Cornett and the city are in Newsweek’s top five cities for tackling tough issues such as education reform, public safety, quality of life and job creation.

Often noted in stories about local government is the role of voters approving tax hikes for specific purposes, such as the MAPS Projects. Newsweek commented that based on the city’s model, “the era of ambitious public works isn’t over; it’s just being financed more sustainably, securing a civic infrastructure that everyone can enjoy.”

In March the American Architectural Foundation will present Cornett and the city with its top award for urban design. Cornett has also garnered favorable notice for his “This City is Going on a Diet” obesity awareness campaign.

The eighth top story is one that is ratified in the giving spirit and generosity of Oklahomans, manifested in practical ways — including record-setting collections of food to replenish the storerooms at the Regional Foodbank and other groups providing care for citizens.

This living tale of concern and compassion is demonstrated in the works of groups like The Education and Employment Ministry (TEEM), LifeShare of Oklahoma and other charitable institutions based in the city. LifeShare’s impact over the past two decades is demonstrated in the state’s high ranking in the number of adults registered as organ donors (roughly two-thirds of the adult population).

Our ninth top story is the announced sale of Oklahoma Publishing Company’s building and other physical assets, and continued downsizing of the workforce at the state’s largest newspaper. Under new management, the paper is seeking a way forward in a competitive media environment and a time of shrinking advertising revenues for both large metro-wide newspapers and smaller community newspapers. OPUBCO’s challenges are reflective of those throughout the newspaper business.

Finally, touching many of the above issues, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s historic run to the NBA finals brought international acclaim to the capital city. The team’s on-court successes are appreciated in this sports crazy town, but it is the visibility and presence of the players in support of worthy causes that continually draws even casual fans into solidarity with the young men on the team.

Whether visiting senior citizens to model fit living and physical training, or taking homeless children to shop for bicycles, K.D. and the boys seem ubiquitous in this community of caring. It’s no wonder that little old ladies still learning the game of basketball sit patiently before and after games to get ceremonial hugs from this bunch. Thunder Up, indeed.
NOTE: McGuigan is editor of CapitolBeatOK, the national “Watchdog” bureau in Oklahoma City, and associate publisher of The City Sentinel, a weekly newspaper. Martin is editor of The City Sentinel, where this ranking of local stories first appeared in the December 27 edition.