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The Next American City

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The Next American City

October 3, 2018
Cities
Economy, finance, and budgets

Mick Cornett joins Aaron Renn to discuss Cornett’s time as mayor of Oklahoma City (2004-2018) and his new book The Next American City: The Big Promise of Our Midsize Metros.

America is full of midsize cities that have prospered through smart governance, including Charleston, Des Moines, Indianapolis, Sacramento—and Oklahoma City. Over the last decade-plus, elected officials and community leaders have made real progress on improving these urban centers, boosting civic vitality, and creating economic opportunity for residents.

Cornett’s four successful terms as mayor of Oklahoma’s largest city offer a blueprint for reform-minded mayors across the country. “The Next American City,” Aaron Renn writes, “charts Oklahoma City’s transformation, offers examples of similar turnarounds in other cities, and describes Cornett’s personal journey from sportscaster to mayor.”

Audio Transcript

Paul Beston: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Paul Beston, managing editor of City Journal.

Coming up on the show today we have a fascinating discussion with former Oklahoma City mayor Mick Cornett, who was interviewed by City Journal contributor Aaron Renn about his tenure as mayor, and his new book “The Next American City: The Big Promise of Our Midsize Metros.”

Cornett served as mayor of Oklahoma City for four terms from 2004 to 2018, during which time he helped turn the city into one of America’s up and coming places.

Aaron’s interview with Mick Cornett begins after this. We hope you enjoy!

Aaron Renn: Hello this is Aaron Renn, contributing editor at City Journal, and I’m very excited to be joined today on the Podcast by Mick Cornett, who was the former four-term mayor of Oklahoma City. And we’re here to talk today about his brand new book, The Next American City: The Big Promise of Our Midsize Metros. Mayor Cornett, thanks for joining me.

Mick Cornett: It’s good to be with you again, Aaron.

Aaron Renn: So we hear a lot today about elite, coastal cities—San Francisco, New York, the world is spiky, all of that stuff you hear. You are making a very different case. You are saying, “actually, not that those places are bad, but there’s another group of cities that are also doing very well and really starting to emerge.” So tell us a little about your thesis.

Mick Cornett: On a percentage basis, the growth going forward—population growth—is not going to be in those east and west coast cities that were so accustomed to growth. It’s going to be in that midsize city. Now Oklahoma’s an example but there are dozens of others—Des Moines, Little Rock, Wichita—there’s a lot of cities out there that kind of fall into that category. And what appears to be happening is that the millennial generation and the generation behind them is starting to look at the quality of life, what they’re looking for in a place to live, and they’re finding these midsize cities have a lot to offer and they don’t look at choices in that midsize range as inferior to New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, or Dallas. They look at them as equal or even better for what they’re looking for.

Aaron Renn: So a lot of this was driven by your experience in Oklahoma City and the transformations that occurred, you know, probably from before you became mayor on through your sixteen years in office and then afterwards. What happened to Oklahoma City? Where did it come from and how did you get to where you are now?

Mick Cornett: Well Oklahoma City, if you take a snapshot, say 1990, was probably the worst big city in America. It probably had the worst economy, the worst downtown, we were hemorrhaging people. We didn’t have a lot of high paying jobs. And we had a business-minded mayor who made a great concerted effort to make the economic development deal of its day with United Airlines. And long story short, he spent a year of his time and an incredible amount of incentives on the table for United to choose Oklahoma City, and United said, “No thank you.” And Oklahoma City was astonished because they knew their incentive package was so extraordinarily large, they couldn’t figure out why Indianapolis got this opportunity. And it turns out that United did some research and they just couldn’t imagine their employees living in such a place that had such a poor quality of life as Oklahoma City. There was just nothing to do. The downtown was completely dead. And so Oklahoma City realized that, you know, we keep waiting for someone from the outside to come save us, and it doesn’t look like anybody’s ever coming. So we better invest in ourselves, and that was the turning point moment. That mayor went back to the voters and passed a sales tax to kind of reinvent the inner city, very similar to the sales tax he was offering United if they would bring those jobs, and it built the new sports arena, a new baseball stadium, a kind of water feature that went through an abandoned warehouse district that is now a new entertainment district with 7 million visitors a year. It put water in the river by building some low-water dams. We had a big ditch that we called the river but there really wasn’t any water in it, but now it’s riverfront property. And we hosted the Olympic trials in rowing in the last two Olympic cycles. And so that was kind of the turning point. And interesting politically to me, that mayor passed all that—he served 11 years—but he was out of office by the time these projects started opening and the city started changing. And so now he’s considered one of the founding fathers of the Oklahoma City renaissance. But he had a fairly controversial and oftentimes negative tenure as the mayor of Oklahoma City. The next mayor came along and used that same format to work on the schools. And then I served 14 years following that, and have been chronically telling the story of Oklahoma City along the way.

Aaron Renn: Those capital improvements you talked about—the MAPS project—there’s a lot that’s completely unique about how Oklahoma City did it and it feeds into why it took so long for those projects to open after it was passed. Talk a little about the structure, because it’s so contrary to what everybody else is doing.

Mick Cornett: Well it’s a sales tax and it’s very simple in structure, I mean it’s a penny on the dollar. And that very first initiative was for five years. And the mayor at the time said that that was about the length of time people would take out a car loan, and so it kind of didn’t feel like forever. And so a penny on the dollar sales tax for five years, no debt. In other words the city would collect the dollars and then turn around and build the projects with the cash flow that came up. And so in a very conservative political climate like Oklahoma City, that appeals to people. Their tax dollars are being spent on capital projects. There’s no debt, and they know that tax is going to stop, or minimally they’ll be offered a new option or some new ideas and they can continue the tax. But they get to vote again. It’s not permanent. And that really has appealed to kind of a conservative climate in Oklahoma City.

Aaron Renn: You know a lot of people today are talking about this Amazon HQ2 project. Well, that United Airlines thing was the Amazon HQ2 of its day.

Mick Cornett: It was.

Aaron Renn: It was this massive, national bake-off, and you know Indianapolis won and, as I said, what maybe a lot of people in Oklahoma City didn’t know—because a lot of people in Indianapolis don’t know your story—but I think people in Oklahoma City didn’t know was that that thing actually closed in less than a decade and they got stuck holding the bag on a lot of debt. And I was wondering if you thought this had any lessons for HQ2. How do you think cities should be thinking about HQ2 because it seemed like you won for losing on this one.

Mick Cornett: Well yeah and so, I think the ways cities ought to be thinking about it is that the secret to economic development is still creating a city where people want to live. And if you’re designing and putting a lot of eggs in one basket for one specific corporate win, then you’re probably underselling your opportunities in a grander scale. And I would suggest that whoever finishes second and third and fourth in the new opportunity ought to learn from those lessons. They shouldn’t look at this as some sort of disappointment. They ought to look at it as an opportunity—well what can we do with all the planning and effort that went into this, there’s another opportunity that’s out there that might ultimately be even better. I mean there’s no guarantee on the business model of Amazon going forward. It certainly looks really strong, but there are other opportunities that are probably going to exceed it. That’s just the way business takes place. And I still believe you’re better off investing in the businesses that are already in your community as opposed to trying to bring in big scale investments from the outside. It’s really hard to get corporate headquarters. In this case it’s sort of a corporate headquarters and sort of not. But it’s really hard to get the corporate headquarters to move. But if you’ve already got businesses that are set to grow, you need to do what you can or figure out ways to give them every opportunity to grow where they are.

Aaron Renn: Well the MAPS projects were about bricks and mortar and a lot of cities do those types of projects, and building things is actually sort of easy if you have the money. You know, we know how to design buildings, we know how to hire construction companies. But when you were mayor, you took on a very different kind of challenge which is not as easy, which is getting people to change their lifestyle when you put the whole city on a diet. So that seems like a much harder challenge. So how did you do that and what were the results?

Mick Cornett: Well when I was elected mayor in 2004, I spent that first year and the second year trying to talk to people inside the city about our emerging status. And I was using these lists to kind of validate our ascension—we were the 18th best city to do this, or number 16 in best city to get a job, best place to start a business—and we weren’t at the top of any of these lists. But we really had never been on the list before. So it was really kind of cool for us, and I was using those lists to validate our progress. And then came out this list of the most obese cities in the country, and I didn’t know what to say. I was completely off-guard. I didn’t know how to defend it or talk about what I was doing to do it. And then I got on the scales and I realized that I’d become part of the problem. I’d gained 10 pounds in each of the first two years that I was elected mayor, and I wasn’t thin to begin with. And so here I was, when I went to a website I found out that I was 40 pounds overweight, and I was embarrassed. I had become an example of the problem, and no mayor wants to be an example of the problem. So I didn’t know what to do about the obesity issue but I knew I could lose weight; I’d done it before. I had this kind of history as an adult of gaining a little weight every year and then losing a bunch of weight so I’d done it before. So I stopped eating as much. Everybody wants to feed the mayor, so it’s not easy to say no all day long. But I lost about 40 pounds over 40 weeks, but along the way I started thinking about obesity as an issue. I had a lot of time to think about it, and I realized one of the interesting aspects about the obesity issue was that we weren’t talking about it. We were very aware that Oklahoma City had an obesity problem—you could look around and see it. And you could see in the next generation it wasn’t going to get better on its own. But it was like, we’re nice people and obesity affects the way people look and so, we’re not going to discuss it out loud. It’s kind of invasive to talk about it. And I realized that that wasn’t getting us anywhere. And I figured we had to start a conversation about obesity. I don’t know how we deal with it, but I know the first step has got to be a conversation. It can’t be something we’re afraid to talk about. And so to kind of just create a conversation, I went to the zoo and I stood in front of the elephants, called a press conference, and I announced I was placing the entire city on a diet, and the city was going got lose a million pounds. I hadn’t done the math or anything like that. It wasn’t a very sophisticated program. And I had political advisors telling me, “Do not do this.” Political instincts are to tell people what they want to hear. And here I was telling people that we were overweight and we needed to lose weight. But the national media responded to it so positively, and in the book I talk about the chapter of going on the Ellen DeGeneres show, and my anxiety, you know, being concerned that people would laugh at us, and here I was bringing attention to this negative image of Oklahoma City. But what happened was the national media embraced us like I hoped they would and came to the conclusion that this wasn’t just a problem in Oklahoma City. But this was actually a city that was trying to do something about it. And the national media’s response and then the local area’s response was very heartwarming and actually part of the success. Keep in mind that it was an awareness campaign. There was nothing scientific about it; there was nothing medical about it. We had a website and counter and 40,000 people signed up and said they lost a million pounds and they did over a 4-year period, I don’t doubt that happened. But I can’t tell you there weren’t 40,000 other people who gained a million pounds at the same time. So I’m not claiming that there was some big weight loss effort. What I’m claiming is it was an awareness campaign that was highly successful. The message penetrated and we were able to talk about obesity and it’s about how much you eat and what you eat and that there are better choices to be made. I also made the strategic decision not to take on the private sector. I worked with Taco Bell on different parts of the menu with the idea that I can’t keep people from going to Taco Bell but I can communicate that there are still choices to be made once you’ve decided to go to Taco Bell about what you eat. All the chefs in our highest performing restaurants started coming out with mayor’s specials. And so when I saw later that mayors had lined up against soda taxes and taken on the private sector and some high-profile confrontations I thought, you know that’s the wrong way to go about it. From a leadership perspective, here I didn’t have any money to spend on this weight loss campaign, but I used the private sector and their marketing dollars to help drive attention to our website, thiscitysgoingonadiet.com. And it was really key to keeping people engaged and energized and to make it so successful. So it is a couple of chapters in the book and I hope people can learn from it; I think there are some lessons that I learned along the way. And one of the next stages was that I realized that the built-in environment was part of our problem. In other words, we’d designed the city around cars and I kind of, you know, in a high-profile way announced to the city that we’d designed the city around cars but now we’re going to design it around people, and that means building sidewalks and more jogging and bike paths, narrowing our downtown streets, making them two-way instead of one-way, making it a more pedestrian-friendly community. And now when you go into Oklahoma City, you see a completely different infrastructure, especially downtown, and a lot of construction to suggest that in the suburban areas. And that awareness campaign was critical because with the awareness campaign, people had an understanding of how the built-in environment was part of the problem. And so it’s kind of been a journey for me. I’ve learned along the way. I certainly when I started didn’t know how it would end up. But here we are over ten years later and Oklahoma City is a changed place in understanding the dangers of obesity, have a higher awareness on health in general, and a much healthier city for the next generation to grow up in.

Aaron Renn: Usually when a mayor writes a book, all of the chapters are, “here’s another incredible thing I did while I was the mayor.” And one of the great things about The Next American City is you don’t just talk about the things you did, although you talk about things like your obesity, you talk about what your predecessors did. But you don’t just limit it to Oklahoma City either. You talk about things that are going on in a lot of other cities that are also midsize cities and kind of how this whole class of cities is emerging. One of the places you wrote about is actually the city that I’m originally from, believe it or not, Louisville, Kentucky. And you talked about Mayor Fisher there, and his plan to make it the most compassionate city in the world, which I think was just very unique, another thing you don’t hear mayors talk about. What were they doing in Louisville?

Mick Cornett: Well as you said, when I heard Mayor Fisher was going to start kind of a program or an initiative about compassion, I didn’t know what he was talking about, really. And it reminded me in some ways of the obesity effort that I put on, because it’s a lot about the mayor using the bully pulpit to talk to his citizens in kind of a one-on-one manner about what we’re really about. You know someone has to stand up and control the narrative for a city or for a state—we need government leaders that can control the narrative with positive energy and positive messages. And I think Mayor Fisher did an excellent job of standing up and saying, “We’re going to be a more compassionate city, and here’s what that means.” Well everybody wants to be in a more compassionate city. I can’t imagine somebody that doesn’t. But it took leadership to kind of explain the road forward in that. And I just admired his efforts in that regard and how it’s led Louisville to be a better place. And it’s just one of many examples of leadership that are in this book, and also sometimes mayoral leadership but also sometimes private sector partnerships in the book.

Aaron Renn: The third, really, stream of material in this book is a little bit about yourself and your journey to becoming mayor of the city and it was really interesting because a lot of people don’t know but you were originally a sportscaster. So how does someone get from being a sportscaster to being a mayor?

Mick Cornett: Well and that was the chapter that almost didn’t make it in the book, because it’s so personal to me. And as you said, you know I didn’t want this book to be about me. And in the end it’s a third about me, a third about Oklahoma City, and a third about the rest of the country. But you know my journey, you know kind of started to change. I was in my thirties and I noticed that being a sportscaster and living the dream, that the job I’ve always wanted to had, I realized that it might not be enough and I kind of wanted a second half to my professional career, but I didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t really know what I was looking for and it was kind of in the back of my mind that this isn’t what I was supposed to be doing. And then the Oklahoma City bombing occurred. Well, that changed a lot of people’s lives in Oklahoma City and I really started questioning, am I really making a difference? Are all of these things that I’m doing as a sportscaster, is the world a better place for it? I mean, this is heavy stuff for a person that’s been at this point well over a decade and almost two decades in the business. And finally a pivotal day in this kind of journey was I transferred in this process from sports to news to kind of have a more serious angle in my life, and my boss assigned me to go cover city hall. And I kind of argued against it. I wanted to go cover the state legislature and she wanted me to go cover city hall. And I had this kind of this euphoric moment in that city council meeting. I saw the people of Oklahoma City standing in front of their mayor and pleading their case, and I saw this interaction of local government and I realized, this is where you can make a difference. This is what I’ve been looking for. So I enjoyed covering city hall, I covered the mayor’s race for the next mayor. I had no idea the next time there was an open seat, I would be on the ballot. But at the time, I just thought, “man, local government is where it’s at.” And I didn’t really necessarily think that I’d be immediately joining but over a couple of years, I realized that I think that’s what I want to do next. And so I left television, started my own business and ran for city council. After three years on the city council, our mayor vacated the seat, and I ran for the open seat and ultimately served four terms. And so there’s a chapter in the book about a sort of a lot of very personal things that I was going through, trying to find myself. I guess it was some level of a midlife crisis. But I wound up going from a sportscaster who kind of centered around comedy, into becoming the mayor of Oklahoma City in a span of like 10 years.

Aaron Renn: I could talk to you all day about this book, because there are so many great stories in it. But I want to leave just a few for other people to discover. So I want to end with just a final question that I don’t know that it’s really in the book, but it was prompted to me by the book. Which is that you know we live in such a media-saturated age and you represented your city on Ellen, some very high-profile things. You’ve developed a national profile not just for yourself but for your city by getting out and speaking. And you brought to that all those media skills that you developed in your sports casting days. You were just comfortable in front of a camera, you knew how to communicate. Do you think that that sort of, not necessarily the media per say, but the idea of being this great communicator and being able to get your message out in the media nationally is a skill people have to have to be a successful mayor today?

Mick Cornett: Well it’s certainly helpful and I wouldn’t say you have to have it, but it’s an asset. You know every mayor generally brings a private sector background but every mayor brings everything they’ve ever done in their whole life to the position. And I think you have to look at your assets and how you can use your skillsets for the betterment of your community. And for me that was my ability to communicate. And I think I underestimated how important it was. I learned about leadership along the way, wound up going to NYU and getting an MBA and studying leadership there. And I realized in studying leadership that I was doing a lot of things they said you should do in leadership but no one had ever told me; I just sort of stumbled through it and life and just realized that communicating with people, explaining the vision, here’s what we’re trying to do, here’s why we’re doing it, here’s what it’s going to take to do it, over and over again, people love it when their leadership stands up and gives direction. And you know I think the key, and I inherited this from my predecessors, I never had a hidden agenda or I never had a personal agenda. I just wanted the city to do better. And I think people recognized that, and I always used the term, “we,” or at least tried to. Occasionally I used the word, “I,” but occasionally it’s “we,” because it’s got to be about more than just me. And you know I’m just excited and thrilled about the future of American cities. I think there’s some great ideas out there, there are some wonderful new mayors out there. And communication skills, as you said, are becoming more and more relevant to going forward and leading at city hall.

Aaron Renn: Once again the book is The Next American City: The Big Promise of Our Midsize Metros. There’s a lot of great stuff in there. Oklahoma City’s been through a lot and Oklahoma City’s accomplished a lot. So thank you very much for joining me to talk about it today.

Mick Cornett: Thanks, Aaron.

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