Cowtown no more? Okla. City looks to Sonics to improve image

Oklahoma City_Even the mayor admits this is a town with an image problem.

When people think of Oklahoma City, they harken back to the 1995 federal building bombing that killed 168 people or a massive tornado four years later that killed 44. Decades after John Steinbeck immortalized the plight of Okies in "The Grapes of Wrath," Oklahoma City is still a "Dust Bowl" town to many.

"We have allowed ourselves to be branded by negativity, by disasters," Mayor Mick Cornett said. "We need positive imagery connected with Oklahoma City."

But civic and business leaders here hope Oklahoma's first permanent major-league sports franchise will finally change the way people think about the area.

NBA owners voted last month to allow the Seattle SuperSonics to come to Oklahoma City, paving the way for it to take up residence no later than 2010 in an arena that is the centerpiece of an urban renaissance.

"That Dust Bowl image has been ingrained in people's minds," said Roy Williams, the president of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce. "I don't know that you ever eliminate it, but what you can do is expand it and you can say, 'Yeah, that happened, but now all this is happening.'

"You can't erase history, but you can certainly write the new history, and I think that is what is going on in this community."

That Oklahoma City could support a major-league franchise seemed improbable less than 20 years ago, when downtown activity mostly ceased at the end of the business day and entertainment options were minimal.

Then developers and city leaders conceived an idea to turn an aging warehouse district adjacent to downtown into an entertainment destination.

The first restaurant in Bricktown opened in 1988 but growth didn't pick up until voters narrowly approved a temporary one-cent sales tax five years later to refurbish the Oklahoma State Fairgrounds, upgrade the Civic Center Music Hall, build a Triple-A baseball stadium and construct a canal that runs through Bricktown.

Just south of downtown, three dams were created to fill a riverbed typically so dry that locals used to joke it was the only river that needed mowing. Now the Oklahoma River is the site of college regattas and it recently hosted the U.S. Olympic trials for canoeing and kayaking.

A freeway is being realigned, creating even more room for growth between downtown and the river, which will be home to several futuristic college boathouses. A new water taxi service has begun along the waterway.

Voters passed a sales tax extension to pay for a downtown arena that ended up hosting the New Orleans Hornets for two seasons after Hurricane Katrina drove the team from its home venue.

In 71 home games at the Ford Center, the Hornets averaged 18,328 fans and recorded 30 sellouts.

"When the NBA came to town and it was so well supported and it got national attention ... it really made us stand up straight and say, 'We can do anything,'" said Jim Cowan, the executive director of the Bricktown Association. "It's kind of a can-do attitude. Our city has shown we can handle it."

To make sure the Sonics would come, voters approved a sales tax to pay for $121 million in improvements to the Ford Center and an NBA practice facility, and state lawmakers passed a tax incentive program.

And it's not just Oklahoma City's downtown that is booming. The city's strong energy sector, led by Devon Energy Corp. and Chesapeake Energy Corp., has buffered the impact of economic problems being felt across the nation.

The state's unemployment rate, hovering around 3 percent and one of the nation's lowest, has bucked national trends and decreased over the last year, while housing prices have countered the national market and increased by 4.5 percent.

"Our banks did not make some of the foolish loans on mortgages that a lot of the banks and mortgage companies in Florida and California did," said Larry Nichols, the chairman and chief executive officer of Devon.

Nichols said the city's emergence on the national scene can be credited to teamwork between local politicians, city employees and a united business community.

"You don't see that in a lot of cities, to get all those groups ... all engaged, having debates but agreeing on the correct course of action and charging forward," Nichols said. "We've had 15, 18 years of very positive momentum and it just keeps going."

That momentum has changed the national image Oklahoma City once had of being "boring" and "kind of a nowhere place," said Christopher B. Leinberger, a Brookings Institution fellow who has helped transform more than 20 downtowns.

"We've definitely jumped up in the minds of other communities and states," said former mayor Ron Norick. "We are not a cowtown anymore. We've become a real progressive city, where there are things for people to do."

Leinberger said the Sonics' eventual relocation will lead to the city being "taken much more seriously as a relocation site for business in general."

Williams said that he began receiving calls from businesses asking about Oklahoma City within days of the NBA's approval of the Sonics' relocation.

"They're saying, 'You're now joining an elite market. We need to see whether we should be in your market.' We do think there are going to be some ancillary benefits" from having the Sonics in town, the chamber director said.

That comes as no surprise to Cornett.

"That's because people know the NBA doesn't do villages," he said. "They don't haphazardly put franchises into cities where they're not going to be successful."

Murray Evans, AP Writer © 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.