There have been numerous failures throughout the history of public works initiatives, with different major U.S. cities subject to bureaucracy, graft and poor design. And then there’s the program in Oklahoma City. Since 1993, the state capital has pursued multiple stages of its Metropolitan Area Projects (MAPS), funding structures that have been credited with reviving the city. And it has done this the right way, following accounting principles that seem lost on bigger cities.
The MAPS program was first created to help save what was then a moribund city. Throughout the 1980s, Oklahoma City suffered an oil market crash, and into the early 1990s was having trouble attracting outside companies to fill the void. So the city, led then by mayor Ron Norick, tried MAPS. The program passed by public vote and dedicated revenue from a 1% sales tax increase towards numerous projects, focusing on quality-of-life amenities in the dilapidated downtown. During 5 years that the tax was in effect, it raised $363 million in revenue and interest, which went towards 9 projects, including a grand central library, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s arena, a revived waterfront, and the famous canal project lined with historic warehouses.
Residents were pleased enough that they voted for a second MAPS in 2001. Named “MAPS For Kids,” the program, still in effect, dedicates $700 million towards 70 public schools, and hundreds of projects within them, ranging from new bus fleets to upgraded technology. And in 2009, voters added MAPS 3, which for $777 million will add another 8 initiatives, including neighborhood senior centers, walking trails, and a whitewater rafting facility.
According to Roy Williams, who has spent decades as an economic development official in U.S. cities, and is CEO of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce, MAPS differs from many other public works programs in two ways. The first is its high level of public orientation, and the second its sturdy fiscal status.
The public process, explained Williams, during an interview in his downtown office, begins well before any vote, and is organized by the Chamber. Oklahoma City has a much more active relationship with its Chamber than other cities–having never formed an economic development department, it contracts out such duties to the Chamber. One Chamber responsibility is to brainstorm a list of projects for given MAPS programs. The Chamber takes this list before various Citizens Advisory Boards made up of residents representing the 8 wards. Together, the Chamber and these Boards flesh out various project proposals, shooting some down, tweaking others and thinking up new ones.
Following this review process, the Chamber presents a final package of projects before city council. Assuming the council votes yes, MAPS then goes to public ballot, where voters must approve the sales tax increase. If it passes–and all 3 MAPS have–then sales tax revenue must be generated before projects break ground, usually in the next year. This means MAPS projects are decided by, voted on, and paid for equitably by residents, since everyone pays sales taxes.
This is also the secret behind MAPS’ strong financials. The city does not take out debt—and thus pays no interest—for projects. Instead it collects money from a reliable revenue stream—earning interest—and doesn’t start building until money is there, making it a pay-as-you-go system. Compare this with civic projects in other cities, such as Kansas City’s Sprint Center arena, that generate debt for decades.
The money, moreover, stretches further in Oklahoma City for multiple reasons. Project work goes to the lowest bidders, helping avoid cronyism and backroom deals. The city doesn’t have a strong union presence, and there is no requirement for projects to use such high-cost labor. And because projects are decided upon during public vetting, they aren’t delayed later by NIMBYs. By the end of 2017, when MAPS 3 expires, the three programs will have accrued an estimated $1.8 billion in sales tax revenue. In return, the city has built or repaired 70 schools, and funded 17 major civic works, practically revamping its downtown, and, increasingly, its surrounding neighborhoods.
With pending completion of MAPS 3, locals are already weighing the possibility of a 4th MAPS. If that’s approved, it will, said Williams, arrive within a different context than the previous three. The initial point of the program was to bring the city through tough times. Now Oklahoma City is an emerging global city that’s competing for companies and workers with nearby rivals like Houston and Dallas. This means, he said, that the nature of the investments must be more targeted.
There is reason to take pause at such public works programs, and the general idea of attracting outside capital through industrial policy. It can lead to misappropriated resources, which in other cities have, in fact, included convention centers and streetcars. But there’s something reassuring about the way Oklahoma City does MAPS. The projects, for whatever one may think of them, are at least chosen and funded by residents themselves. And they are delivered low-cost and debt-free, providing more bang for the buck. Talk about bringing about a change together as a city.
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