Four years ago, a Colorado Springs delegation visited Oklahoma City as part of a routine regional leaders trip. It was like other trips before it — and quite a few after — but it permanently changed the city’s business environment.
The trip was the genesis of the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance, which combined the missions and purposes of the Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Corp. It led to changes in both leadership and focus for the Business Alliance, and redefined the careers of the leaders of the organization.
Last week, the folks from Oklahoma City came here to outline the steps they took to launch an economic renaissance, replacing their sleepy downtown with its aging conference center and boarded-up hotels with a vibrant city center full of young professionals, tourists and new businesses.
Instead of closing the conversation, listen to some new voices: artists, farmers, small business owners, educators.
How’d they do it? First, they met privately with a handful of government leaders, and came up with a slate of new projects that would serve as a starting point to updating the city’s image. Then they lobbied for a five-year, 1-cent sales tax to pay for it — but brooked no argument from the residents or from City Council about which projects were worthy of the money and which weren’t.
All nine of the redevelopment projects — from refurbished convention center to new baseball stadium — were decided on a single vote. And the former mayor said he allowed no vote in Council on the project if it wasn’t going to be unanimous.
It worked. Oklahoma City recreated itself.
The parallels to City for Champions projects are obvious. Our city pledged to use the state money as a starting point, and to ask voters to fund the rest. All four projects are designed to create jobs, bolster the economy and revitalize the city’s flagging fortunes.
But that’s where the parallels end.
The chances that the City Council will be unanimous in any future votes on City for Champions? Slim.
Some Councilors actually campaigned on their opposition to the downtown stadium, the most controversial of C4C projects. Controversial because of the fear that no one will use it — unlike in Oklahoma City, the Sky Sox have declared their plan to stay put in their stadium off Powers Boulevard.
Others balk at the cost. Where will the city’s share of the money come from? Who’s going to foot that bill? Will the taxpayers vote for a bond issue or a tax increase?
Colorado Springs isn’t Oklahoma City. It’s smaller, both in land mass and population. It’s not the state’s capital or its largest city. Many argue that the first attempt to emulate Oklahoma City — the Regional Business Alliance — created more factions than collaborations, more disagreements than compromises.
Maybe Oklahoma City doesn’t have all the answers.
Why not build on local expertise? Instead of closing down the conversation, invite in different people: artists, farmers, small business owners, educators. Instead of allowing a few business people to decide the city’s future, hold community conversations to learn the viewpoint of people who might view economic development from a different perspective.
While the Oklahoma City leaders’ process worked for them, their history, population, geography and economic diversity are all very different than in Colorado Springs. City leaders should realize that this city has both a different history and a much different political process.
A thriving downtown is vital to economic development and a city’s success — too vital to allow mistakes and closed doors to sour the chances of success.