Krawczak: Ideas for a hustling, bustling small town

I recently spent four days in Oklahoma City for a conference. Oklahoma City was never very high on my list of places I’d like to visit. After visiting for the conference, I am very thankful that I had the opportunity to see Oklahoma City. Otherwise I would not have known what a great city it is! I’m not a fan of ridiculously hot, humid weather, but I am now a fan of so many other things about that big, yet little, city.

During our conference (from which I returned with many great ideas for our Chamber), we had several opportunities to explore and learn more about the history and development of the city.

If you look back into history, you will learn that in the 1960’s, Oklahoma City experienced a great decline. The oil boom was dwindling, and despite several attempts to reverse the trend, nothing was very successful in taking its place. The downtown area was largely abandoned, crime was on the rise, and property values were decreasing. New projects (private or public) were definitely few and far between. In the early 1990’s, the mayor proposed a new idea he called the Metropolitan Area Projects, or MAPS for short. The proposal was rather simple. Implement a very small local sales tax (one cent) for a predetermined amount of time (66 months) with the revenue to be spent on nine specific projects that were stated up front (including a canal system through Bricktown, construction of a minor league baseball stadium, and more).

What do you think happened with his proposal?

It worked. Today, Oklahoma City is bustling with activity. There are people everywhere, there is constant construction of new projects by private developers, and businesses are frequently opening or expanding. Additionally, the pride of the community for their town (and especially for the NBA Team, The Thunder) is amazingly present and obvious. To give you an example of how things have changed, a friend from another Michigan Chamber and I wanted to go to a specific restaurant that a local person had recommended to us. We waited an hour for a table. When we left the restaurant a little after 9 p.m., people were still waiting. The coolest part? It was a Wednesday night. Can you image having so much going on that our stores and restaurants were still booked at 9 p.m. on a weeknight?

After talking to several locals (one of my favorites was the canal boat ride tour guide who actually owns property near Alpena), I learned that passing the increase in the sales tax wasn’t easy. There was controversy. It was hard work. But the community got it done. Where would Oklahoma City be today if they hadn’t been proactive in their approach? I’m sure the locals appreciate having a bustling economy, the jobs that have been created, and the sense of community that has developed.

This exact project might not work in our community. But if we want economic development to happen, there will be tough decisions that need to be made and supported. The people of Oklahoma City were very proactive in their support of this effort. There is no doubt that they had concerns and reservations but they knew they had to do something because status quo was obviously not working. When (not if, but when) your community proposes an innovative idea so completely packed full of change, are you prepared to support it? The people of Oklahoma City made the right decision in supporting an increase in sales tax to make sure that the future of their community was a positive one. I’m sure it was outside of many of their comfort zones. What are you prepared to support to make sure the future of your town is one of success? How far out of your comfort zone are you willing to stretch? What unknowns and concerns are you willing to hand over to faith in the community? I hope you are willing to stretch well beyond the limits of your comfort zone because it is necessary for successful economic development.

The people of Oklahoma City provide us with a great example of what can happen when the community has faith, trust, and desire for a better future. Are you brave enough to stand proud and support bold new ideas, as challenging as they may be, if it means a better future for your community?

Jackie Krawczak is the executive director of the Alpena Area Chamber of Commerce.