A gripping story of transformation in one city; new ideas in adult ed. & more.
"Even if you are on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there." – Oklahoma City native son, Will Rogers
WHEELS DOWN: OKLAHOMA CITY
Photo by Austin Urton for Shutterstock
Rodgers and Hammerstein may have thought O-K-L-A-H-O-M-A was O-K, but the Sooner State and its biggest city were anything but in the 1980s. In fact, before 1993, “living in Oklahoma City kind of sucked,” according to David Holt, who worked for Mayor Mick Cornett from 2006 to 2010. As a history of the state's economy later explained, “The traumatic collapse of the energy business led to substantial out-migration, failure of financial institutions, excess capacity in real estate and fiscal crises in state government.”
But everything changed—or at least began to—in 1993. That year, Oklahoma City residents decided to pull themselves up by their cowboy bootstraps and turn their hometown into a big league city.
If you build it, they will come
After the city lost out on a bid for a new United Airlines maintenance facility—it went to A sister heartland city Indianapolis—Mayor Ron Norick and the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce proposed the Metropolitan Area Projects Plan, or MAPS, which would use a time-limited 1-cent boost to the local sales tax to fund specific civic-improvement projects.
Voters approved the first phase of MAPS in 1993, then subsequent phases in 2001, 2010, and 2019. Over the years, MAPS has paid for everything from convention center improvements and a trolley system to construction of schools and the popular Scissortail Park. In 2019, the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber reported that, because of MAPS, “Oklahoma City has changed its economic trajectory and created a place where people and businesses want to relocate…. All combined, the MAPS programs have reshaped Oklahoma City as a place to live, work and play, and set a foundation for Oklahoma City’s next era of growth.”
Bringing the Thunder
Perhaps the splashiest impact MAPS had beyond the city limits was the creation of what is now the Chesapeake Energy Arena. This 18,000-seat multipurpose facility opened in 2002 and was renovated in 2009-2010. Not everyone around town thought it made sense to build an $87.7 million arena without an anchor tenant, but Mayor Kirk Humphreys persevered. And he was right. Having the arena available let Oklahoma City offer a temporary home to the New Orleans Hornets after Hurricane Katrina blew them out of the Big Easy and a permanent home to the Seattle SuperSonics—now the Oklahoma City Thunder—after local business leaders led by Clay Bennett bought the franchise.
The Thunder started playing in Oklahoma City during the 2008-2009 season and made it to the championship game three seasons later, thanks largely to All-Stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The Thunder didn’t raise the Larry O’Brien Trophy in June 2012, but the team continues to raise the city’s profile.
OKC’s economy today
Today, Oklahoma City boasts a diverse economy—far more diverse than when its fortunes rose and fell with the price of crude oil. Energy is still a major sector, of course, but the local chamber also boasts of the city’s strength in bioscience, logistics, and aviation and aerospace. (Despite losing out on that United Airlines facility a quarter-century ago, the region’s 230+ aerospace firms produce $4.9 billion in goods and services and employ 36,600 workers.)
Major advantages are the city’s location in the geographic center of the country, its temperate climate (which is sunny or partly sunny two-thirds of the year), and its friendliness toward business. (According to an Arizona State University study, it was the easiest place in North America to do business in 2019.)
The chamber also boasts a slew of accolades the city has received, including the best large city in which to start a business, the most livable community in America, and the city with the best combo of low cost of living and high wages. You can see the whole list of lists on the chamber’s website.
INNOVATION IN EDUCATION
Skills-based education comes to Kansas City
According to data gathered by Kansas City-based Kauffman Foundation, roughly 20% of jobs in the KC Metro area are in the technical and skilled trades. But as the current workforce grows older and retires, many employers are struggling to find new workers to replace them. Unfortunately, the current educational system isn’t preparing that future workforce to take on jobs such as advanced manufacturing and information technology.
To address the educational shortcomings, the Foundation is launching a startup called Skilled KC Technical Institute, which aims to give adult learners (and eventually high schoolers) “an industry-aligned, student-centered learning experience.” The initiative will partner with higher ed institutions and various industry leaders to give students the chance to earn credentials in the fields of manufacturing, IT, and bioscience. The goal is to provide workers with the skills necessary to build a successful career while helping employers that are struggling to find qualified candidates to fill job openings.
Eligible high schoolers get two free years of college in Grand Rapids
The city of Grand Rapids, MI, is coming together in a big way to provide two years of free college to eligible residents beginning in 2020. The partnership between Grand Rapids Community College (GRCC) and the Grand Rapids Promise Zone Authority is projected to provide tuition- and expense-free college for 267 students in its inaugural year, pulling from 22 area high schools within the recently established Promise Zone. Michigan currently has 15 such zones throughout the state, meaning each year thousands of graduating Michiganders will have access to debt-free, higher education that otherwise might've been out of reach.
While the price tag for Grand Rapids will be substantial, city and authority officials expressed confidence in its long-term solvency. Through private and corporate donations, investments from GRCC, and education tax revenue, the promise zone is on firm financial footing. According to John Helmholdt, executive director of communications and external affairs for Grand Rapids Public Schools, the City of Grand Rapids State Education Tax funds are slated to fully fund the project starting in 2025.
Iowa’s first female angel investor network reaches investment milestone
Four years after its inception, FIN Capital—Iowa's first female angel investor network—reached the symbolic $1 million milestone. With a portfolio that now includes eight startup companies and 24 members, FIN Capital has established itself as a serious player in Iowa's angel investor scene, changing the demographics of a historically male-dominated environment.
The Des Moines-based, all-women network typically invests between $50,000 and $100,000 in new companies working in the fields of insurance, agriculture, and medical/health tech, with preference given to companies based in the Midwest.
Iowa governor Kim Reynolds and director of Iowa Economic Development Authority and Iowa finance authority Debi Durham spearheaded the efforts to get FIN Capital up and running in 2015. Durham stated, “FIN Capital is a platform to empower women as they pursue opportunities for financial success via investments in early-stage companies.”
FIN Capital's current portfolio includes innovative new companies in several Flyover Future hotspots, including Minneapolis, St. Paul, Cedar Rapids, and—of course—Des Moines.
May Mobility receives $50M Series B funding, led by Toyota
May Mobility, a self-driving shuttle service based in Ann Arbor, announced in December that it had received $50 million in funding, thanks in part to Toyota Motor Corp, which was the largest investor. (The exact amount of the automaker’s investment has not been disclosed.) The funding will be used to add more employees to the startup’s engineering and operations teams and to expand its deployment of six-seat shuttles.
May Mobility has raised $83.6 million since it launched in 2017 and operates 25 vehicles divided among pilot projects in Detroit, Grand Rapids, and Providence. The shuttles, which can carry five passengers and an operator, travel at a maximum of 25MPH and are guided by “advanced autonomous perception and control software.” The company is focused on providing first mile/last mile transportation solutions.
May Mobility co-founder and CEO Ed Olson said the company offers more than just groundbreaking technology. “Our sales pitch is not that we are autonomous. It’s that we provide a better level of service and we’re solving real transportation problems.”
Useless information that is strangely fascinating.
While you’re still recovering from pro football’s biggest day, we thought we’d see if you can identify the notable football legend with the city in which he was born.
Click here for today's answers
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