March 23, 2017


Oklahoma City today is regional magnet for businesses and tourism.  However, twenty years ago, Oklahoma City was struggling to attract outside investment and employment. Oklahoma City’s inspirational turnaround story demonstrates the key role that the business sector collaboration can play in building healthy and prosperous communities.

The backstory: an early loss and a rallying point

In the early 1990s, Oklahoma City was a finalist to site a United Airlines’ maintenance facility. City leaders presented the most competitive bid they could. Feedback from United was good and it was looking like the city would win the facility. However, in a surprise move, Indianapolis won. Mayor Norick called United’s CEO. The United Airlines CEO confided that executives flew in and explored the city, particularly the downtown. They felt they ‘just couldn’t see themselves or their families living there.’”

The United Airlines loss served as an important rallying point for businesses, the chamber of commerce, community leaders and the mayor to make major changes. According to then Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce board chair Dave Lopez, “The mayor said, ‘If our efforts attract other companies—great—but we will make our quality of life better, nonetheless.’ ”

The result – building community health and prosperity

An innovative, community-driven method for funding economic development projects, called MAPS, or Metropolitan Area Projects arose from this effort. MAPS have led to almost $1B in public/private investment in a completely revitalized downtown, improved schools, cultural, and wellness facilities, parks, playgrounds, and an Olympic rowing center. MAPS funding is a voter-approved and -managed city sales tax. The MAPS tax is so popular that it has been renewed several times during the past 23 years, funding public investment in the arts, health, and education.

“The United Airlines setback turned into great success for our community. Downtown Oklahoma City today is a thriving regional and national hub for recreation, dining, business conventions, the arts, and physical activity,” said Dave Lopez.

Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, President of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, agrees, adding that the returns on this investment continue, “Investments we’ve made in Oklahoma City in quality-of-life amenities and smarter urban design nudge our residents toward healthier and more active lifestyles. They are also the types of things highly educated millennials seek in a community – urban parks, public transit, bike lanes and trails, active sports opportunities.”

Mayor Cornett continues, “We’ve made the case that [companies will locate] jobs in those communities that retain and attract a highly educated workforce. When I go to Thunder games, the arena is filled with young people who appreciate and thrive in a healthy and active environment.”

Evidence of a turnaround - Oklahoma City today ranks nationally as a “Best Place to Build a Business and Career”

In 2015, Oklahoma City ranked 29th on the Forbes List for Best Places to Build Businesses and Career. County Health Rankings and Roadmaps data found that Oklahoma City and County’s efforts to improve its built environment had a major impact on the city’s health. Through its MAPS initiatives and other programs, Oklahoma County’s built environment rank improved by 29 positions since 2010.

Local businesses have also experienced cost savings and other benefits. One example is Valir Health, a comprehensive healthcare organization based in Oklahoma City.  Bill Turner, vice president, Human Resources, says,“Valir Health has long believed that a successful wellness program is a critical component to creating a culture of true employee engagement. We feel as a leading healthcare provider it's important to set the standard through promoting health and wellness to our employees and their families. Wellness is the highest standard of care. Valir WellAware (employee wellness program) is a program that has produced significant ROI. The annual budget investment for the program is $38,000 annually and the benefits are many, from cost savings to reduction in employee turnover.” The company has been recognized publicly for its initiatives, including tobacco free and physical activity initiatives, as well as a “Certified Health Oklahoma Business (5 years) and a top Oklahoma Workplace for three years, placing 6th in the large employer division. Mayor Cornett sums up the findings, “There is a direct correlation between a healthy workforce and a healthy bottom line. It shows up in obvious metrics – such as generally lower healthcare costs for businesses, less lost time due to sick leave and higher productivity.”

Oklahoma City’s experience serves as a national model for public and private collaboration in healthy community economic development. The benefits of long-term commitment and investment in community and workforce wellness continue to pay off decades after the first wake up call. Oklahoma City proves the business case for investing in building a healthy community.