David Todd grew up in Oklahoma City and remembers a downtown so lifeless after 5:30 p.m. that “you could lie down in the streets.”
Some 30 years ago when the workday ended, businesses closed, employees evacuated en masse, and “nobody went downtown,” he said.
Today, Todd, 58, describes the same downtown as “vibrant.” A streetcar runs all day and well into the night carrying residents and visitors to restaurants, hotels, sports events, concerts and more.
Downtown is never completely deserted because many young professionals are making their homes there in condos and apartments.
What brought downtown from vacant to vibrant was the power of a penny.
In 1993, Oklahoma City voters approved a temporary one-cent sales tax to build a ballpark, a canal, a civic center music hall, a library and a sports arena.
The tax exemplifies the kind of public policy that broadly benefits existing local businesses and residents and, as a consequence, leads to growth.
Jordan Rappaport, senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, researched population and employment growth nationwide for a December 2018 article in the Economic Review. Rappaport’s article—“The Faster Growth of Larger, Less Crowded Locations”—examined data from 2000 to 2017 and compared metropolitan areas of various population sizes. He found that locations with populations of 500,000 to 3 million often grew faster than the national rate.
“Growth measures transition,” Rappaport said. “It shows improvement, that conditions are better than before for residents and businesses who are there.”
Rather than growth as a goal, public policies designed to help current businesses and residents tend to attract new businesses and increase the population.
Todd now is program manager of Metropolitan Area Projects (MAPS), Oklahoma City’s capital improvement program funded by the penny sales tax. He credits MAPS with downtown’s progress and the city’s growth.
“MAPS provided so many jobs and kept money local,” he said.
When the tax expired in 1999, it had raised more than $309 million and earned nearly $54 million in interest to pay for capital improvements. Over time, businesses began expanding, new companies came in, and the city’s population grew from about 506,000 in 2000 to 643,000 in 2017.
Rejection was the impetus.
In the early 1990s, Oklahoma City was competing with Indianapolis for a major airline hub. The city offered the usual inducements but the airline chose Indianapolis. Asked why Oklahoma City wasn’t chosen, an airline executive explained, “We can’t imagine making our people live there,” Tom McDaniel recalls. McDaniel, now 80, is a longtime Oklahoma City resident and chairman of the MAPS3 Citizens Advisory Board. He and Todd agree that the airline decision was the turning point.
“We realized we needed to be investing in ourselves,” Todd said. “We needed to make Oklahoma City a place where people want to live.”
MAPS was proposed to voters as a temporary tax for 66 months for specific projects.
“It was a pay-as-you-go plan,” said McDaniel, whose advisory board meets monthly to review projects and make recommendations to the City Council. “Results were not instant.”
Having no debt was part of MAPS’ appeal. The projects were built only when the money became available.
Spurred by the success of MAPS1, voters in 2001 approved MAPS2 to improve Oklahoma City schools. MAPS3 is underway with construction of a park, four senior centers, trails, sidewalks and other capital improvements. A MAPS4 is being discussed.
The population effect
Another factor affecting a location’s growth is its density or “the crowdedness as experienced by residents,” Rappaport said.
Rappaport found that “growth is negatively correlated with population density.” In other words, crowded conditions hinder growth due in part to the resulting traffic congestion, pollution and higher home prices. More than 90 percent of residents in each of the Kansas City and Oklahoma City metropolitan areas live in neighborhoods with density below 5,300 persons per square mile, Rappaport noted. In the Chicago area, less than half of residents live in neighborhoods with density below that level.
Omaha is another Tenth District location growing faster in population and employment than projected.
“We’ve got 9,000 more people working now than a year ago,” said David G. Brown, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce.
The chamber evaluated the Omaha region’s economy in a 2018 report, “The Barometer, an Economic Scorecard of the Omaha Region.”
The report has been published annually since 2014 and measures the progress of the region that includes Omaha and Fremont in Nebraska and Council Bluffs in Iowa.
The Omaha region is compared with nine other “high-performing” cities, including “competitors” Kansas City and Oklahoma City and a “peer” city, Colorado Springs, Colo.
In assessing the progress of other locations, the report looks beyond city limits—beyond Oklahoma City, for example, to a four-county region with 1.4 million people; beyond Kansas City to surrounding Kansas and Missouri counties and cities with 2.1 million people; and beyond Omaha to other parts of Nebraska and Iowa with more than 30 communities and nearly 1 million people.
Shared resources play an important role in determining where people live and jobs locate.
“A metro area’s cities and suburbs share a multitude of resources such as airports, highways, mass transit, cultural amenities, entertainment venues, air quality, potential employers and many more,” Rappaport said.
Brown said the report identifies the Omaha region’s strengths as arts and cultural opportunities, standard of living, entrepreneurship and low cost of doing business.
Omaha has maintained steady economic growth and a comparatively low unemployment rate, about 2.5 percent now, due to the diversity of its economy, Brown said.
The diversity is represented by a variety of industries: financial services, transportation, construction and engineering, military, agribusiness and processing and health care.
“We’ve never had all industries down at the same time,” Brown said. “Even when the economy is low, we’ve had major construction.”
Collaboration between government and the private sector has been instrumental in keeping the economy strong. A public and private partnership in the last two years, for example, built a new cancer center, which added 1,200 jobs.
Since the late 1980s, Nebraska has had “business-friendly” statewide legislation in place, said Jennifer Creager, senior director, public policy for the Chamber of Commerce.
Companies have received incentives for investing and expanding and for creating jobs. The legislation has been revised and revamped over the years and now is being updated to include raising hourly wages.
“The issue is no longer jobs but a need for available workforce,” Creager said.
Incentives for raising wages are performance-based and require that businesses demonstrate that they are paying a certain percentage of the Nebraska average wage.
Smaller areas growing
Rapid growth in the Tenth District is not limited to larger locations.
Natural amenities such as beaches, good weather and recreational opportunities can make up for small size.
In Jackson, Wyo., with a population of about 10,000, mountain ranges, ski resorts and a river attract sports enthusiasts. Public policies favorable to bicyclists, recyclers, renters and homeowners keep residents there.
Jackson is in the Jackson Hole Valley of Teton County. Jackson is at the southern end of the valley, and Grand Teton National Park is at the northwestern end.
“We are nestled in the most beautiful part of the country,” said Carrie Bell, waste diversion and outreach coordinator for Teton County Integrated Solid Waste and Recycling.
To preserve natural beauty and protect wildlife, recycling, reusing and composting policies have been enacted. In 2014, Teton County passed a zero waste resolution, meaning that eventually nothing will be sent to the landfill. So far, 34 percent of the waste has been diverted and by 2030, the goal is to reach a rate of 60 percent.
In 2018, five months of collecting and composting commercial food waste under a pilot program resulted in nearly 150 tons composted rather than landfilled, Bell said. Commercial kitchens’ food discards, such as potato peelings and leftover vegetables, were collected from seven sites operated by two concessioners at Grand Teton National Park. The food waste was collected during tourist season from May 11 through Oct. 15 in 2018. During 2017, the first year of the pilot program, roughly 73 tons of food waste was collected. The goal of the program is to have regional food-waste composting services fully operational by 2021.
Lauren Dickey, 37, grew up in Florida and moved to Jackson about 10 years ago with her husband who “loves the winter recreation,” Dickey said. “Many people move here for the mountains and skiing.”
Dickey says she’s not a fan of the winter weather “but I love having access to a national park and forest and everything else” about Jackson.
Dickey is a bicyclist and communications director for Friends of Pathways, a nonprofit that advocates for a pathway system, safer streets and trails in the Jackson area.
Bicyclists find the streets of Jackson easier to navigate, thanks to dedicated lanes and a wayfinding system that posts signs along bike routes.
Pathways are another way to get around on a bike. The pathways connect Grand Teton National Park to Jackson.
Riding on the pathways, for example, “you could leave the town of Jackson on bike and get to Jenny Lake in Grand Teton National Park and never be in traffic,” Dickey said.
In 2018, Friends of Pathways launched a bike-share program in Jackson that allows visitors and residents to use public bikes stationed throughout the town. The bike share program is owned by Southern Teton Area Rapid Transit and managed by Friends of Pathways.
When bicyclists, skiers and other visitors decide to make Jackson their home, they need a place to live. That’s where the Jackson/Teton County Affordable Housing Department comes in.
April Norton, director of the department, said the average cost for a house is $1.3 million and the income for a family of four averages $98,500.
“That means the average home price in Teton County is 400 percent what a normal, hard-working family of four can afford,” Norton said.
The program has about 400 rental units and about 500 ownership units. Requirements to participate include income qualifications and local employment.
To keep rent affordable, the department restricts rent “to ensure that no household will pay more than 30 percent of their income toward housing,” Norton said.
The affordable housing program was founded 25 years ago to keep local workers in the county.
Poised for takeoff
Providing affordable housing is an example of a policy that evolved because the local community recognized a need and addressed it. At one time, workers in Jackson couldn’t afford to live where they worked. Now they can, and Jackson’s employment and population have grown.
Rappaport said that an example of recognizing a need and fixing it can be seen right now in the project to reconfigure Kansas City International Airport from a three-terminal complex to a one-terminal design. By a wide margin, voters in 2017 approved the one-terminal concept, and the project recently received the green light from the City Council and participating airlines.
“Not having a more functional airport is likely to be a factor holding down Kansas City’s growth,” Rappaport said.
Before the 2017 vote, residents expressed their frustrations with the existing airport, saying that it doesn’t have enough bathrooms, restaurants or available flights.
“The current configuration is obsolete,” said Dan Fowler, Kansas City councilman for the 2nd District and vice chair of the council’s Airport Committee. He said the redesigned airport, expected to open in 2023, will involve 2.5 million hours a year “in terms of boots-on-the-ground construction alone and will have long-term public benefit.”
The new airport will have all foot traffic in one building—rather than divided among three—and is expected to attract more retailers and restaurants, Fowler said.
Local businesses beyond the airport will benefit, too. As airlines bring more passengers in and out of Kansas City, people will be eating out, shopping, booking hotel nights, attending conferences and conventions and, all in all, spending their money in the Kansas City area.
“The airport will be a brand-new front door to Kansas City and a big economic generator,” Fowler said.