Former OKC mayor tells Fort Smith Board that a vision is needed

story by Ryan Saylor

On the 125th anniversary of Oklahoma City's founding, its former Mayor Kirk Humphreys was in Fort Smith to speak to the city Board of Directors about what his city did to transform from a place that was boring and dead after 5 p.m. to a city that is now among the fastest growing in America.

He said the transformation seen in Oklahoma City started because of MAPS, the city's Metropolitan Area Projects sales tax initiative passed in the early 1990s, which raised the city's sales tax by a penny (from a rate of 7.375% to 8.375%).

According to Humphreys, the sales tax initiative turned the city "that had nothing going for it" into a city with some of the lowest unemployment numbers in the nation, a growing population and amenities that rival larger cities, such as Dallas and Denver.

But in order for the once-decaying city to get to a point of growth and pass the sales tax that has now been approved in some form or fashion seven different times and has resulted in more than $4 billion in private development in the city's downtown core, Humphreys said the city had to have five things:
• A pressing need;
• Unity among elected leaders;
• A mayor with political capital;
• A strategic focus; and
• The ability to deliver on promises made.

The city was able to convince voters of the need and the result has been the construction of a new sports arena that now houses the Oklahoma City Thunder professional basketball team, a new baseball facility, a canal through the heart of the city's former warehouse district, as well as numerous other projects. He said the vision was cast by former city leaders, including then-Mayor Ron Norick.

"You see, our role as city leaders is to set the agenda for our city," he said. "It's our role to say, 'No. Here's where we are, but here's where we could be.' Your city will never go beyond your vision. It just won't. They may catch up with it, but they'll never go beyond it."

Humphreys told the Board that the city had a prime opportunity to do something with the city's riverfront, telling them to "look at what it could be" versus what it is.

Asked what Fort Smith could do to take the lessons from Oklahoma City's rebirth and apply them locally, Humphreys said the city should look at out-of-the box ideas to transform the city.

"I think there's some options that you have with…you could come up with a blended program of public and private partnership," he said, further elaborating on the possibility of Fort Smith doing a half cent sales tax to jump start revitalization efforts.

"What if you said, 'OK. We're going to do a half-penny sales tax.' I would make taxes limited in duration," Humphreys said, adding that the city could potentially double their money by getting local corporations or other entities based in the region to match spending possibly dollar for dollar so that Fort Smith could have more bang with its buck.

While the former mayor was simply floating a theoretical example, he again said its incumbent on the leadership of Fort Smith to be the visionaries and think outside the box.

"I think the big question is not what is our tax rate, but are we satisfied with the way my city is? And if I'm not satisfied with the way my city is, then I've got to do something to change it. You can only economize so much and sooner or later you have to make new investment."

In other business, the Board held a special session in order to approve a set of resolutions that approved bids for subcontractors on the Ben Geren Aquatics Center, as well as increased the fee payment to Flintco, the project's construction manager.

While the resolution to approve 29 contracts totaling $6.267 million was passed without opposition, the second resolution to amend the fee schedule with Tulsa, Okla.-based Flintco to $466,530 from an original fee of $371,250 received the no votes of City Directors George Catsavis, Philip Merry, and Pam Weber. The increase, according to Deputy City Administrator Jeff Dingman, was due to the increased cost of construction from $7.5 million to $9.348 million since the original fee agreement was signed.

"The resolution goes on to establish the Construction Manager's Guaranteed Maximum Price of $9,763,852 for all construction phases of the project," Dingman said in a memo to the Board, adding that including fees to be paid to Larkin Auatics and money to pay for furniture, fixtures and a point of sale system bring the total cost of the project to $10.897 million. Between the city and Sebastian County, both governments had committed a combined $10.9 million for the project.

Merry said he was in favor of the project, but did not agree with the move to increase fees to be paid to Flintco before any substantial work had been completed on the project.

"I'm a real believe in a deal's a deal. I'm so for the aquatics (center). I'm for it. But I feel like a deal's a deal. I feel like there had been a commitment made for services to be rendered, there had been a commitment made on what the city should pay and to now give a raise or some sort of increased compensation before we even break ground feels funny. It seems like that'd be something you do at the end if you come in under budget and had a great successful project and wanted to do a bonus. But before we enter into performance to even be had, we're already giving raises."

County Judge David Hudson has told The City Wire that the Quorum Court was not required by law to approve the bids.