Chamber gathers insight from OKC trip

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Oklahoma City doesn’t have much in common with Colorado Springs — but that’s exactly why the Chamber of Commerce wanted to pay the city a visit.

The chamber and 50 civic and business leaders returned last week from a trip to OKC to measure the city’s success, and to see whether Colorado Springs can duplicate its achievements.

“They’ve had a renaissance in the last 10 years, and we wanted to take a closer look at that,” said Chamber President of Government Affairs Stephannie Finley. “They’ve done a lot of things right.”

How that success translates to Colorado Springs is uncertain, but the chamber remains committed to their annual visits to other successful cities.

“We do this deliberately,” Finley said. “And we can learn a lot from these trips. Their unemployment rate is half ours, for example. We need to see if we can get where they are.”

Among the discoveries — Oklahoma City has created a strong economic environment where the unemployment rate is 5.2 percent and where leaders “speak with one voice,” said Dave Rose, communications director for El Paso County. “This has been going on for 20 years, a 20-year, overnight success.”

He said the city started by working on an urban renewal plan for its downtown, and added a recreation segment using the river that ran close to downtown, which is now used by Olympic rowers for training.

The city’s success took cooperation between state and local government officials and private business owners. The city created public-private partnerships that led to a building boom in its downtown corridor.

“Their business leadership is extraordinary,” said El Paso County Administrator Jeff Greene. “They all speak with one voice, business, government, the arts — and it all centers around the chamber. The things that occur in Oklahoma City are structured by the EDC, the Chamber, the CVB — they’re all under the same umbrella, and they all understand the mission is economic development.”

Oklahoma City was in the same position as Colorado Springs — high unemployment, difficulty creating jobs — 20 years ago, and that was why the chamber chose to visit it, Finley said.

“We always choose cities that were at a turning point, and then made that turn,” she said. “It’s a very deliberate choice.”

So what happened in Oklahoma City to create such a vibrant revival? They had an “a-ha” moment, Rose said.

“In 1993, they put together a very attractive, very aggressive incentive package to lure a United Airlines maintenance facility to the city,” he said. “And, when they had made it through the initial narrowing down process, they were ready to throw the victory celebration — but, in the end, they didn’t get it.”

When asked why, United explained that its high-tech, skilled workers didn’t want to live in Oklahoma City, so the company chose Indianapolis for the expansion instead.

“It was a huge blow,” Rose said. “But they realized they were missing the boat. It’s not about incentives, it’s about creating a place people want to live, and we should invest in getting there.”

Today, Oklahoma City has a vibrant downtown and an eclectic arts center, said Nathan Newbrough, executive director of the Springs Philharmonic. The city is home to some major headquarters and has five business parks located in or near the city.

Despite leaders’ belief that incentives alone don’t lure companies, both the state and the local government offer a variety of both cash and tax credits for new and relocating corporations.

Oklahoma City’s chamber web site calls one of their incentive programs “groundbreaking.” It’s a discretionary incentive fund designed to help new and expanding corporations by providing money for the expansion.

But Colorado Springs’ delegation says OKC’s success isn’t about the incentives — and it’s not about branding. It’s about attitude.

“They really celebrate their successes,” said El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark. “They even celebrate their construction. Here, we seem to want to apologize for success. Look at the USOC. We can’t seem to get past the way the financing was done — but they are here, and we should be celebrating that.”

Incentives are important, a low cost of doing business is important, but those who visited Oklahoma City say quality of life is also important.

“And we have that here,” said Donna Nelson of Security Service Federal Credit Union. “We have the USOC, we have Pikes Peak. Other places would love to have the environment we have here. The problem is we don’t celebrate it; we don’t talk about it. I was here for two years before I realized the USOC was here, and it was another year before I knew you could tour it. We should be touting these things.”

Touting the successes might bring the different groups in Colorado Springs together, Newbrough said. Disagreements occur there, but they are handled differently.

“If there are disagreements, they’re handled respectfully,” he said. “They talk about them behind closed doors then they move on.”

And, as a reminder, Oklahoma City has experienced large-scale tragedy.

Just after the urban renewal projects got started, the Alfred P. Murrah federal building was bombed by Timothy McVeigh. The city had to make a decision not to allow the bombing to become their city’s brand.

“And they didn’t,” Finley said. “They only incorporate it in one place — in their military branding.”

OKC doesn’t have a single brand, like the one that is being developed in Colorado Springs with the help of consultant Stone Mantel. Instead, it has many brands, Finley said, in order to incorporate all the industries inside the city.

After their third trip to a different city to examine successes there — the chamber went to Charlotte last year and Austin the year before — some of the lessons learned are being applied in the Springs.

“The county’s citizen services center is a direct result of the Charlotte trip,” Greene said. “In Charlotte, the city and county collaborate, they share services. It’s a unique model, and it’s something we could do here: Share services through intergovernmental agreements.”

While the group is enthusiastic about the trip — and about Oklahoma City — it isn’t clear how they will translate the lessons learned there into success at the city and county level, bringing more than 50 hand-picked people into the conversation.

What is clear: Colorado Springs is lagging behind the rest of the state in its recovery from the recession.

“This is about jobs,” Finley said. “This is what we need to work on.”

Chamber officials plan to hold several meetings to discuss ways to create a vibrant economy here in the Springs.

“Now the work begins,” Nelson said.

But it might not take 20 years to garner some positive attention. In June, a delegation from Rapid City, S.D. will be visiting Colorado Springs. It’s the first time another city has visited.

“We must be doing something right,” Finley said.