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Mick Cornett

Mid-sized metros are ‘Next American City’: A Q&A with Mick Cornett, author and former Oklahoma City mayor

Editor’s note: Mick Cornett served as Oklahoma City's mayor from 2004 to 2018. That’s four terms, making him the city’s longest-serving mayor.

“Midway through his time in office, Newsweek called him one of the five most innovative mayors in the country, and at the end of his mayoralty, he was named No. 25 on Fortune Magazine's ‘World's Greatest Leaders’ list,” reports.

Since leaving office, Cornett has written a book, “The Next American City: The Big Promise of our Midsize Metros.” The book describes not only Oklahoma City’s success, but also what links that city with Fargo, Sioux Falls, Indianapolis and other mid-size cities of surprising prosperity and health.

Recently, Cornett talked with Prairie Business about his work.    

Q. You started off in broadcast journalism. What brought about your interest in city government?

During the 1990s, I was a television sportscaster, and the bombing occurred in Oklahoma City. At the time, I was going through a stage in my life where I was wondering what I wanted to do with the second half of my professional career.

After the bombing, I started covering news instead of sports, and I felt I was changing as a person. Then my boss assigned me to go cover City Hall – and when I went into that first meeting, I just realized that's what I was looking for.

I found a relevance, I saw citizens interacting with their elected leaders, and I thought to myself, “This is where a person can make a difference.”

So I left television, started my own business, ran for City Council and then three years later, ran for mayor. I served for 14 years.

And now, using those years of experience plus studying cities and development, I put the book out. And I’m doing consulting work in trying to help cities do better, find their hidden assets and create something that they may not have appreciated as much previously.

Q. You have a great line in your book about Oklahoma City’s reputation, which took its first hit when John Steinbeck described residents fleeing drought, grasshoppers and foreclosure for California, the Promised Land.

“Sometimes I joke that reading the book was just something our teachers did to ensure our kids would feel bad enough about themselves,” you write.

These days, of course, Oklahoma City ranks high on many opportunity, prosperity and quality-of-life lists.

Talk about that turnaround.

A lot of the seeds had been planted; my predecessors had done some amazing work.

For example, the way we fund our initiatives. The MAPS or Metropolitan Area Projects Plan had been started in the early 1990s to revitalize downtown. Our downtown core had really been deserted, and Oklahoma City already had started to turn that around.

The approach was a penny-on-the-dollar, time-limited sales tax that is put on the ballot to build specific capital projects. We live in a very conservative political environment, and our citizens seem to like the idea of a limited sales tax for capital projects.

The approach means we don't bond projects out. We pay cash, so there's no debt with the MAPS approach.

And when it's over, people can go up to the project and touch it, then determine for themselves, did it meet my expectations or not?

We feel like we have met the voters’ expectations over and over again. And through the years, 25 years now, we have developed a reputation of doing what we said we were going to do.

That has developed a level of trust where people are willing to invest over and over again.

Using that approach, we worked hard, looked for opportunities, and the economy just grew.

Q. In your view, many young people are drawn to cities of a more modest size. Explain.

I think the millennial generation and the young people who are coming after them are just much more comfortable than previous generations with smaller places. What they’re looking for are things such as lower cost-of-living and less traffic congestion; in fact, if they could live in a community in which they didn't have to own a car, they probably would make that choice.

That really creates a wonderful opportunity going forward for cities such as Fargo, Bismarck and Sioux Falls. That American dream of owning your own home is disappearing on the East and West coasts for a lot of young people. They just don't see the opportunity.

And they're looking for places where they can create their own identity and make a difference, plus find a quality of life that fits their individual needs.

Q. What are the challenges that remain?

Change is hard. People have a built-in resistance to change. If a civic leader starts talking about changing something, whether it’s zoning or making one-way streets into two-ways, it's unlikely that everyone is going to stand up and say, “What a great idea.”

We’re also entering a political phase where it seems like we elect more and more political leaders who want to divide us. And we need leaders who will bring people together.

So the challenges? I would say they are the challenges of change and of a political environment that is not conducive to people working together. Because it's amazing what can happen when everyone is pulling on the same rope.

Q. In other words, government can’t do it alone.

I talk a lot about government, but I hope one of the takeaways of the book is the important role that the private sector and business leaders play. I’d urge them not to just let their city become what it would naturally become if they didn't get involved.

In other words, they should try to make sure they have good people running for office, whether it's school board or City Council. Because poor elected leadership is hard to overcome, but good elected leaders working with the private sector can accomplish great things

And I can't overemphasize that having a university in a community is huge, because you’ve already got educated 20-somethings. They're already there. Of course, many of them have come from somewhere else and may leave, but it's a lot easier to get someone to stay than it is to get them to move in.

It's a very entrepreneurial generation. I'm 60, and I can assure you that when I got out of college, I didn’t even know what an entrepreneur was.

Now, they teach it; it's part of the vocabulary. It's in the high schools. And every time I see a young person with a cell phone, I wonder if they’re starting a business.

And they are going to take our economies to places that we can only imagine, because they're going to be creating jobs that haven't even been invented yet.

So when you're talking about the future of your local economy, it's largely about how many highly educated 20-somethings and you attract. The economy will almost take care of itself if you can be successful in attracting that generation.

Q. And you attract them how? By ensuring that you have amenities, a high quality of life and good schools?

Yes. And by having an urban core with some vitality -- some sort of urban experience, a pedestrian-friendly built environment, streetscape projects and landscaping. In other words, make the pedestrian a valuable part of the transportation system.

Another one of the challenges of the book is to say, “Let’s create the type of city that we want to have.” We all live in cities that we didn’t build. We inherited them from previous generations.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t be more purposeful about what type of city we’d like. For example, the autonomous vehicle is just around the corner. In years to come, we may just be riding in cars, not driving them, and we may not be owning them, either.

That’s going to change our perspectives and interactions a great deal. For instance, how is is going to affect the number of parking lots? How will it change housing construction, if it turns out that people no longer need two- or three-car garages?

We’re at a pivotal point where we can start thinking seriously about what type of community we want to create, knowing that if we’re successful, we’re going to have this very entrepreneurial younger generation come in and help build a new economy.

Q. Are you optimistic about the future of the cities in our region?

Absolutely, because I've seen it. The challenges that Oklahoma City faced were dramatic. The economic collapse of the 1980s, the bombing in 1995 – I almost think that the situation was so bad, it turned into a kind of an asset.

In other words, when you're talking about change leadership, it's helpful if you don't have to convince people there's a problem.