November 7, 2019

Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt takes the city’s massive revitalization plan into the next era

For 25 years, Oklahoma City has been implementing a $1.5 billion renewal plan. The next phase could be its most ambitious.

Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt cuts the ribbon on the city's latest revitalization project, Scissortail Park. Photo courtesy of the mayor's office

For the last 25 years, Oklahoma City has been investing in itself to the tune of $1.5 billion. Through a series of limited-term, one-cent sales taxes, called the MAPS (Metropolitan Area Projects) program, this “pay-as-you-go” model allowed Oklahoma City to build world-class recreation and cultural facilities, parks, transit infrastructure, schools, and more—and stay out of debt.

Mayor David Holt is the latest steward of this ambitious plan, now in its fourth phase. We spoke with him recently, just before the grand opening of one of the centerpieces of phase 3, a sprawling $130 million dollar park with gardens, trails, a concert venue and picnic pavilion, a boathouse, and a dog park.

Mayor Holt told us about what he’s most excited about in the next phase of projects, MAPS 4, which goes up for a vote on Dec. 10. If approved, the one-cent sales tax, which would replace a current MAPS 3 sales tax that’s set to expire, would go toward projects that are more focused on serving neighborhood and human needs, including social services.

Check out our conversation below and follow the mayor on Twitter @davidfholt—he tells us he’s very active on social media and responds to most questions!

This Q&A is edited for length and clarity.

Hello Mayor Holt, thank you for speaking with me. I’ve been reading about the MAPS program and all the wonderful new amenities it’s created, especially downtown, but as your city looks to the future what excites you most?

We started the conversation a year ago about MAPS 4—it seemed like the people of Oklahoma City had a prioritization on projects that will unleash the power of MAPS into their neighborhoods and into their daily lives.

We ended up with a package of 16 projects that are heavily weighted towards neighborhood needs and human needs—projects that would ultimately become national models and the areas of mental health, homelessness, youth centers, parks, transit, and even a diversion hub for people interacting with the criminal justice system.

Scissortail Park was part of the third phase of Oklahoma City's 25-year grand revitalization plan, known as MAPS. Photo by Doug Hoke

We have so many interesting projects in this package and it’s a very broad focus and it meets a lot of different needs in the community. It’s our generation’s opportunity to set the direction of the city for the next decade.

It’s an eight-year one-cent sales tax and it will be directed towards these 16 different projects that cover a broad spectrum of needs in the city, with a tilt towards human and neighborhood need. It’s a little bit different than where the MAP story started. Twenty-five years ago we had this downtown that was a wasteland and we had to invest in it, but we’ve done that. Now we’re trying to see how we can take care of all the people in our city and make sure that the renaissance we talk about in Oklahoma City is extended to all of our residents.

I’m going to make a note to follow up next year to see how everything is going because this seems very exciting.

Thank you! And OKC-dot-gov is a quick and easy place to see all 16 projects.

OK, now one of the questions I ask every mayor: What’s the role of small, medium, and large businesses in helping to move Oklahoma City forward?

We’re a city that’s largely built on small businesses and even our big businesses were small businesses that started here. We want to create an ecosystem where people want to live and create their businesses here and then a pro-business regulatory environment and workforce environment where they can maintain the growth of that business here in Oklahoma City.

We learned 25 years ago that we have to invest in our city’s quality of life, which has an economic impact that isn't necessarily obvious on its face. It is very real, and it has paid off for us.

The MAPS projects were about creating a city where people wanted to live. We found that, yes, tax environment and regulatory environment are important to business location, but so is just having a city that people want to live in. The modern paradigm is really that people choose where to live and then they figure out the employment situation. They make their life choices on quality of life and job opportunities often are secondary. We learned 25 years ago that we have to invest in our city’s quality of life, which has an economic impact that isn’t necessarily obvious on its face. It is very real, and it has paid off for us.

Our economy has been fantastic and things like having a major league sports team, which is a direct result of MAPS, have been major contributors to that economic success. That’s one way we’ve focused on building a place where small businesses and large businesses can grow.

We’re also looking at ways to even be more directly involved in creating that entrepreneurial ecosystem and MAPS 4 actually provides one of those opportunities. There’s [$71] million dollars in MAPS 4 for investment in an Innovation District. This will bring an Innovation Hall and some connectivity and placemaking around the Innovation District. And also a minority small business resource center modeled on something that we saw in Philadelphia.

We’re putting some pieces in the MAPS 4 to continue building that entrepreneurial ecosystem in Oklahoma City so that people will not just choose to live here because of the quality of life, but will then also choose to live here because there’s places and networks in existence that they can tap into.

That’s wonderful. We write often about programs that help emerging entrepreneurs, especially entrepreneurs of color. So, that’s great. Now let’s talk a little bit about what it’s like being mayor. What’s the job that best prepared you for becoming mayor?

Probably being chief of staff to the mayor. I’m born and raised here, but I went out to school at George Washington University [in D.C.]. I worked for the Speaker of the House. I worked for President Bush and then I came back home and I ended up becoming my predecessor’s chief of staff for five years and at a relatively young age. I was 26. I’d already worked in the U.S. Capitol, the White House, and the state capitol. So it might appear that I was working my way down to City Hall. But you know, I found that that was actually the most impactful level of government and the most fulfilling public service that I had experienced.

The first half of Scissortail Park, which opened last month, encompasses 36 acres near downtown Oklahoma City. The second section will open in 2021. Photo by Doug Hoke

So you talked a little bit about the MAPS 4 project, but what’s another big goal for you as mayor?

I knew coming in when I took office and MAPS 4 was going to be the dominant topic of my first two years in office, but there’s another major issue facing our city and that’s public education. This is no different than the list of concerns that other mayors around the country have, but unlike some mayors, I don’t have any authority over our school system.

Our city is so large—620 square miles—that I have 24 school districts in the city limits. It’s insane. But Oklahoma City Public Schools is the largest. It’s faces the greatest socio-economic challenges, and being at the center of our city; it defines our educational image for the world.

When Mayor Holt is not cutting ribbons or marching in parades, you can find him on social media, where he is very active and answers most queries. Photo courtesy of the mayor's office

MAPS for kids, otherwise known as MAPS 2, was an investment in our capital for our school buildings 20 years ago. And so there is a little bit of history where the city kind of stepped in and assisted the school district. Capital does not seem to be their primary challenge right now, but there still are many challenges that continue to cause young families to want to move to the suburbs. Plus, we’ve had some state funding challenges that have kind of defined a narrative locally that I feel like we need to overcome.

So all of that is to say that once I get beyond MAPS 4, 2020 is all about education for me. I think a mayor is uniquely positioned to convene the education leadership the city leadership the business leadership and the philanthropic leadership around a unified vision for public education. That’s the conversation I intend to lead.

I find social media is sort of an endless Town Hall.

You spoke about the mayor as a convener. What’s your favorite way to connect with or listen to residents?

I am pretty active—and that’s probably an understatement—on social media. I don’t know of many large city mayors—Oklahoma City is America’s 27th largest city—who are quite as responsive as I am on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I am the only person with the passwords. If it’s a serious question or comment, I’m going to react to it and that tends to surprise people, but I enjoy it. I find social media is sort of an endless Town Hall.

What’s your favorite place in town to hang out when you’re not performing your official duties?

You presume that a mayor is ever off the clock and there is no such thing! I’m always performing my official duties, so probably my house. When you live this lifestyle and your day is scheduled down to the minute, if you get a Sunday when you’re not giving a speech or cutting a ribbon, that’s my favorite. I’ve got two kids, 9 and 7, and if we can just hang out at home or go to a movie, it’s those simple pleasures in life that are what I’m looking for right now. Those are the days that I’m able to recharge a little bit.

We cover a lot of nonprofit organizations, especially nonprofits doing something unique. Are there are a few nonprofits solving problems for your residence that you’d like to tell me about?

I’ll give you a good example that ties back to MAPS 4: our police department created a family justice center, which is really a service provider for victims of domestic violence. It’s a place that brings together all of the different service providers that offer services to victims of domestic violence, called Palomar.

It’s been so successful the last two or three years that it’s been in place that we decided to include a permanent facility for Palomar in MAPS 4, so there’s a $38 million allocation for a permanent home for Palomar. We think that’s a potential national model for demonstrating the city’s commitment to fighting domestic violence, which unfortunately we have very high rates of domestic violence in our city and our state.

In MAPS 4, we also have $50 million for homelessness housing that will be expected to partner with our housing authority and the Homeless Alliance to provide the wraparound services so that the housing accomplishes its goal which is to reduce and potentially eventually eliminate homelessness in our city.

We feel this is a commitment to the housing-first strategy that has proven effective and popular around the United States.

Now for the lightning round: First job?

I’ll give you a juvenile answer and then they and then my adult answer. As a kid, I was in Shakespeare in the park for 10 years here in Oklahoma City and I think I was technically paid $15 a season or something like that, so it’s a job. And then and then my first job while I was still technically in college at George Washington was for the Speaker of the House, right in the U.S. Capitol. That’s where I was on 9/11, right outside his door. I was 21, and it was an entry level position for sure, but entry level at the center of the universe. That was a fascinating experience.

Favorite subject in high school?

I guess like civics and history as one might expect.

Final question: What’s the last great book you’ve read?

I should probably give a shout-out to my predecessor’s book, The Next American City, by Mick Cornett [and Jayson White].

Thank you so much. Thanks. Have a great day.