Read more of the extended Q&A with Mick Cornett.
In 2006, Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett stepped on a scale and came to a realization: "I was obese." Cornett's epiphany wasn't just personal. Oklahoma City had begun appearing on multiple lists of the country's fattest cities, and the mayor decided it was time to do something about it. His idea? Put the city on a diet. (To drive the point home, Cornett held a press conference standing in front of elephants at the city zoo.) The results of the weight-loss initiative are impressive -- 43,000 participants already have lost a combined 600,000 pounds and counting. Cornett himself has shed 40 pounds, down to 180.
The mayor's crusade against obesity became the cornerstone of a whole new vision for the city's future. "We had an automobile-centric culture, a drive-through restaurant mentality," he says. "We hadn't built a pedestrian-friendly community."
So Cornett crafted a bold idea to remake Oklahoma City as a walkable urban center. His ambitious $777 million plan included an extensive new downtown streetcar system, sidewalks throughout the city, a 60-mile network of bicycle trails and walking paths, a new convention center and a new 70-acre park downtown.
Cornett spent much of 2009 trying to convince voters to fund the plan by extending an existing 1-cent sales tax. First elected in 2004, Cornett, an Oklahoma City native and former sports broadcaster, garnered a record-high 87.6 percent of the vote in his 2006 re-election. He put his popularity on the line by backing the new plan, says Roy Williams, president of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce. "He was so passionate about it that he was willing to risk his political capital."
Voters approved the new plan in December 2009. Cornett says he's just continuing the city's existing momentum: With two similar tax increases in the 1990s, Oklahoma City has been on an upswing for the past 15 years. Still, he recognizes the revolutionary nature of his vision. "It's all part of this culture shift where we're creating a healthier community. This is a renaissance time for Oklahoma City. We're in a golden age."
— Zach Patton
Photo by Brett Deering