Q&A: Mick Cornett
Mick Cornett (full profile) is the mayor of Oklahoma City, Okla. Governing Senior Editor Zach Patton talked to Cornett about the strides he's made toward improving the quality of life in his city, including his crowning achievement: a grand, $777 million plan to remake downtown. Here is an abridged and edited version of the interview:
You're on a quest to re-shape the downtown development of Oklahoma City. Why?
In 2005, 2006, we started showing up on lists of the most obese cities in the country. I was embarrassed by that; I think most of our citizens were. One day I got on the scales, and I weighed 217 pounds. I realized that I was obese. I thought it was everybody else in the city who was obese. I had no idea I was part of the problem.
So I started losing weight, and in the process of losing this weight, I spent a great deal of time trying to decide why the city had developed into one of the most obese cities -- it was that automobile-centric culture, it was that fast-food mentality. It was the fact that we hadn't built a pedestrian-friendly community. People drove everywhere.
How did that realization turn into MAPS 3, a $777 million redevelopment plan for the city?
I decided what we really needed to do was to get a conversation going. I came up with this stunt of "putting the city on a diet." So I went to the zoo, stood in front of the elephants and said, "We're going to lose a million pounds." We launched a website using private-sector donations, and 43,000 people have now signed up and have lost over 600,000 pounds.
MAPS 3 is largely made up of quality-of-life components, economic development components. We're trying to change the culture of the community from an infrastructure standpoint, from a community where life revolves around the car to one where life revolves around people.
MAPS 3 -- "Metropolitan Area Projects" -- isn't the first time Oklahoma City residents have approved a tax increase to fund building projects.
In 1993, city leadership proposed the first MAPS program, which had 9 parts, including a new ballpark, a new performing arts center and a canal through the entertainment center. Those projects began opening in 1998. Ever since that first project opened up, we've kind of been running on a string of positive energy. We followed that up with what we called MAPS for Kids, which is [where] we built, or are rebuilding, all 75 buildings that are in that inner-city district. They're all going to be brand new or refurbished. We're in the final stages of completing that process.
The vote for MAPS 3 was in December 2009 -- not a great time to be asking voters to extend a 1-cent sales tax increase. How did you convince them that it was necessary?
Now more than ever, you've got to invest in economic development and quality of life. You don't stop when times are bad.
This was right at the height of all that economic calamity. But people in Oklahoma City are just forward-thinking, and they see great synergy between the business community and City Hall, between the City Council and me. I mean, there's not a lot of squabbling. There's unity in the city, and the citizens are a part of that and believe in that concept.
Unity was not [necessarily] a problem 20 years ago, but coming out of the [1995 Oklahoma City] bombing experience, I think we really united and grabbed hands and pulled ourselves up. MAPS had already been voted in prior to April of '95, but it hadn't delivered anything yet. So when the first project opened and a sense of pride started formulating in the city, that bombing experience seemed to unite us in some sort of psychological way.
So tell me what MAPS 3 includes, specifically.
We're redesigning all of our inner-city streets; we're building sidewalks; we're building jogging and biking trails; we're building senior wellness centers, a large park downtown, a new downtown streetcar system and a brand new convention center.
We're also making investments on the river. We'll have the finest venue in the world for canoeing, kayaking and rowing. Top athletes and coaches [from around the world are moving] to Oklahoma City to get ready for this explosion of infrastructure in their specific sports. It breaks away stereotypes, where Oklahoma City might be perceived as a dry and dusty place. So to be the world's finest venue for those sports helps us from a branding perspective.
Prior to being elected mayor in 2004, you served on the City Council. But you spent most of your career as a sportscaster. How has that influenced your perspective?
I don't consider myself a politician. I don't tell people what they want to hear. I forgo any chance to run for higher office. I like being mayor. Mayor's where it's at.
You can really make a difference in City Hall. I see a lot of people in Congress who are just banging their heads against the wall -- good people who are just frustrated with the system.
So what's the mood like in Oklahoma City right now?
It will take, I suspect, 10 years to build out the infrastructure that we've currently pledged and have funded. And I suspect we'll have some success toward that cultural shift of creating a healthier community. Time will tell.
But already, people are proud. For the first time, we have a generation of people who would invite their family and friends from around the country to come see their city. You would never have done that when I was growing up. It's always been a good place to live and to raise a family. But it wasn't a place you'd have invited somebody to show off. But when the first MAPS projects started, all of a sudden we had this pride.
People want to feel good about where they live. In Oklahoma City, it's like we give them the talking points. They're real proud of what they've created. They take ownership, it's theirs.
Photo by Brett Deering