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Oklahoma City's Rebound

April 1, 2011
Several ambitious taxpayer-financed projects have breathed new life into Oklahoma City's downtown, totally transforming this proud Southwestern city.

Walking down the bustling streets of Oklahoma City's trendy Bricktown neighborhood, you might never realize just how badly the city was hurting not all that long ago. In the midst of the oil bust of the mid-1980s, unemployment was high, and the downtown's only hotel came close to closing. The city's downtown struggled for nearly a decade, and then the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building killed 168 residents and damaged a large area of downtown, including 324 buildings within a sixteen-block radius of the blast site.

Oklahoma City's leaders resolved to rebuild the area, and the changes in Oklahoma City's downtown since the dark days after the bomb blast are nothing short of remarkable. Several new office buildings are now under construction, and downtown Oklahoma City has become a destination for tourists, sports fans and residents looking for the amenities of a downtown condo or for a night out on the town in Bricktown. The former warehouse district from the 1900s has been almost completely redone and now offers plenty of nightlife, new residential housing, and AT&T Bricktown Ballpark, home of the Oklahoma City Redhawks, the AAA minor-league affiliate of the Houston Astros, and a regular site of the Big 12 NCAA College Baseball Championships. Also within easy walking distance is the Oklahoma City Arena, home of the National Basketball Association's Oklahoma City Thunder.

Wayne Parker Jr., president of Wayne G. Parker Co. Inc., Jenks, Okla., says the city is now doing better than it has in years, thanks in large part to the diversification of the economy. While it's not recession-proof, Oklahoma City's economy tends not to swing from unsustainable highs to dramatic lows like some other regions of the United States. “Oklahoma City lost so much during the 1982 through 1986 recession that hit our area much harder than the rest of the country due to the influence of oil and gas,” he says. “We have diversified and are not as heavily dependent on oil and gas. We did not have booming growth in the last two decades, and Oklahoma City built for the growth and was able to build the infrastructure to support the growth. Government was able to handle the growth and businesses were able to keep up and prosper.”

Adds Pat Bryant, sales manager, EMSCO Electric Supply, Oklahoma City, “Oklahoma oil companies and their satellite industries learned a lot from the early 80s oil bust about not over-expanding and growing too fast. We are much more diversified now than 30 years ago.”

Part of Oklahoma City's rebirth can be attributed to several massive redevelopment packages known as the Metropolitan Area Projects (MAPS), which have funded the redevelopment of the city's core. In three votes since 1993, voters have committed $1.8 billion to the downtown revitalization. MAPS3, the most recent publicly funded investment in downtown, will pump $777 million into the area through a citizen-approved sales tax that will fund a series of eight projects intended to enhance quality of life and economic development opportunities for the city. Projects include a new downtown convention center, a new downtown rail-based streetcar system, and improvements to the Oklahoma River that will result in one of the best rowing race courses in the world. Oklahoma City will see the first construction begin on MAPS3 projects by the end of 2011.

The biggest building under construction downtown right now is the 54-story Devon Tower, the new headquarters for Devon Energy Corp., a huge natural gas and oil exploration and production company that should be complete in 2012. When complete, the building will offer 1,900,000 square feet of office and retail space at an estimated cost of $750 million. Much of the nearby neighborhood is being made over as part of Project 180, a $141 million downtown project covering 180 acres in the center of the city.

The Devon tower is the only new office building underway at the city's core, but many other new buildings are going up within a two-square-mile area. SandRidge Energy Inc. started a $100-million rehabilitation of its downtown headquarters across three city blocks. Construction is also under way on the Chesapeake Finish Line Tower, a $5-million, four-story project in the boathouse district, a present from SandRidge to the city. Continental Resources Inc. is planning to move its corporate headquarters into the current 19-story Devon headquarters by mid-2012 as part of plans to triple its size in the next five years.

“There's a lot happening down there,” says Tony Kyle, a principal of rep firm Electrical Products of Oklahoma Inc., Oklahoma City. “As part of the Devon project and part of the Sand Ridge project, they're sprucing up everything, knocking a few buildings down and refurbishing others, and updating the streets and landscapes and all that stuff.”

Kyle says the city didn't suffer as much as other areas of the country in the recent recession. “We didn't see the big downturn like the rest of the nation,” he says. “We saw a little downturn, but we don't ever get the big upturns either. So when things are booming on the coasts, we're going good, but we don't have a big, giant spike. So it kind of smooths out the way we go.”

Market forecast data provided by DISC Corp., Orange, Conn., reflects this steady-but-not-spectacular growth, as Herm Isenstein, DISC's president, forecasts that electrical distributors in the Oklahoma City area will sell approximately $385 million in electrical products, an increase of 4.5 percent over 2010.

Oklahoma City is the capital and the largest city in the state of Oklahoma and 44th largest metropolitan area in the United States. According to U.S. Census data, the Oklahoma City Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) 2010 population was 579,999 and is expected to add nearly 175,000 more residents by 2012. This would account for roughly half of the expected population growth in the entire state of Oklahoma. The city is located at the intersection of several major east-west interstates and the busy I-35 highway that runs for 1,580 miles from Laredo, Texas, near the Mexican border through San Antonio, Austin and Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, and on through Kansas City, Mo., Des Moines, Iowa, Minneapolis and Duluth, Minn. The Oklahoma City MSA is projected to exceed 1.28 million in population by 2012.

While the federal, state and local governments are the city's largest employers and municipal leaders continue to try to attract a diverse array of business, oil is still unmistakably big business in town. Oklahoma City is located in the middle of an oil field, and the state capital even has oil derricks on its grounds. The city's tallest building is the new Devon headquarters project mentioned earlier, and Chesapeake Energy Corp., another Fortune 500 oil and natural gas giant, makes Oklahoma City its home, too.

Two Oklahoma reps say the oil and natural gas businesses are cautiously growing. “Devon, Chesapeake, SandRidge Energy and others have many new drilling sites projected, along with Halliburton, which services these sites as well as many other related industries, says Marty Aubert and Richard Williams, both territory managers for Burrus & Matthews, an independent manufacturers' rep with locations in Oklahoma City and Tulsa.

The oil prices have certainly increased the distributors' business that deal with the oil companies and gas companies,” says Parker of Wayne G. Parker Co. “There are a lot of things other than drilling that impact the oil and gas business, but drilling in the state is up to 158 rigs as of Feb. 25, which is up 42 percent year over year. But in 2007 or 2008, we had about 200 working rigs and in the mid- to late-1970s, we reached over 900 rigs.

“Gas companies and drilling and oil well servicing companies are adding personnel and vehicles to maintain the projects they are on, and this has increased business at the electrical distributor,” says Parker. “More meters, tools and safety equipment. More wire and pipe and fittings for more rigs and maintenance and completion activities.”

Electrical distributors and manufacturers' reps are optimistic about Oklahoma City's future. Kyle of Electrical Products of Oklahoma Inc., sees good things happening in Oklahoma City. “We are investing,” he says. “We are on our third one-cent sales tax in Oklahoma City and all that money is being put back into capital projects, buildings and things that you can see. In 2011, we're kicking off the new stuff. There will be a new convention center built somewhere. They haven't decided where. Along with that, there are other projects that were part of this sales tax. We've approved three in a row now. It's really been a boon to downtown Oklahoma City. Because of that, people are moving back downtown to apartments and condos. I-40 goes through the middle of downtown. They're moving I-40 half a mile south. That's going to create a half-mile/mile of new development.”

Bryant of EMSCO Electric Supply sees steady growth for Oklahoma City. “In the next 10 years, I think we'll see more national companies locate here as Oklahoma City continues its slow growth population wise and culturally,” he says. “There should be continued development in the Bricktown area. It's within walking distance of all the downtown area and the Oklahoma City Arena where the Oklahoma City Thunder plays and it's the hub of downtown night life. The Thunder have been an overwhelming success, with sellouts most nights as well as being at the top of the league with their success on the court.”

Galen Hollar, president, Burrus & Matthews Inc., Irving, Texas, does a nice job summing up what's happening in Oklahoma City. “I have just been fascinated with their conscious economic development group,” he says. “They have done a marvelous job of promoting the city. Who would have thought that they would get a professional basketball team in there? They have taken an older town and done some terrific things in terms of attracting business and tourists. The fact that it's pretty rich in oil and gas doesn't hurt either.”

Oklahoma City by the Numbers

2011 sales through electrical distributors. $385 million in electrical products this year, an increase of 4.5 percent over 2010, according to forecast data provided by DISC Corp., Orange, Conn.

Building permits. Total building permits year-to-date through January for Oklahoma City were down 15 percent. Building permits year-to-date through January for single-family homes are up one percent.

Major construction projects underway. The 54-story downtown headquarters for Devon Energy Corp.; Boeing's development of a six-story, 320,000-square-foot building; the $100-million rehabilitation of the SandRidge Energy downtown headquarters; and the construction of the Chesapeake Finish Line Tower, a $5-million, four-story project in the boathouse district.

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