OKLAHOMA CITY – After years of quietly working to reinvent its downtown and shed its image as bombing victim, Oklahoma City has started screaming for attention.

The roar erupts on game nights at the Ford Center, where nearly 19,000 basketball fans leap to their feet, wave signs BA team, Oklahoma City is seizing a rare chance in the national spotlight, hoping to show off a transformation that city leaders consider worthy of the major leagues.

Embracing the moment as a sales pitch, Mayor Mick Cornett has called for the city to “support this team with everything we’ve got.”

The three-year-old downtown arena and the rest of a massive revitalization project has done much to lift the cloud of the 1995 federal building bombing from the state capital’s heart.

A national memorial at the bomb site attracts visitors with its graceful and somber tribute to the 168 dead. But more uplifting changes are a few blocks south – where water taxis cruise past the canal-side dining of the Bricktown entertainment district’s refurbished warehouses and families can take in a movie, a Triple-A baseball game and, since Nov. 1, NBA basketball.

“What people are finding when they come to Oklahoma City is that they’ll be back,” said Frank Sims, executive director of the Bricktown Association. “They can’t get it all done.”

The chance to highlight the city’s efforts came, ironically enough, through another tragedy.

Two days after Hurricane Katrina knocked the Hornets from New Orleans, Cornett was on the phone with the NBA, offering up the arena that has hosted Britney Spears, the Rolling Stones and NCAA regional basketball touing an average 18,566 fans. Cornett said the team is expected to boost the city’s economy by $50 million to $150 million.

Doris Bell, a neatly coifed 64-year-old from nearby Norman, “wasn’t even an NBA fan.” But now she comes to the games with a turquoise “H” plastered on her face.

Hornets forward Brandon Bass, who sees little playing time but is nevertheless mobbed by fans, attests: “I get a lot of love in Oklahoma City just for being a Hornet.”

Much of the renewal was funded by a temporary sales tax that voters approved in 1993. Public and private investment, including projects completed and those planned, add up to more than $1.3 billion since 1996, said Dave Lopez, president of Downtown Oklahoma City Inc.

In the early 1990s, the city was still mired in the aftermath of the 1980s oil bust. Its convention center was outdated, and major concert tours passed up this metropolitan hub of more than 1 million people.

Even downtown’s was an embarrassment, prompting jokes about being the only river that had to be mowed twice a year.

The city built a nnts and the entertainment venues. A new system of locks and dams has allowed the river – renamed the Oklahoma River – to host regattas.

The city’s downtown turnaround is considered a model among other cities experiencing similar rebirths, including Little Rock, Ark., Nashville, Tenn. and Memphis, Tenn., said Christopher B. Leinberger, a Brookings Institution fellow who has helped transform more than 20 downtowns.

But Oklahoma City is only “halfway there,” he said. The crux of downtown redevelopment is returning people there to live. Projects that would add roughly 1,500 townhouses, homes, condos and apartments for downtown are in various stages of development. City leaders believe retail will follow. The city also has long-term big-league aspirations, even though the mayor said no one is out to steal the Hornets from New Orleans.

If the NBA ever decides to expand, Commissioner David Stern recently said, “Oklahoma City is now at the top of the list.”



On the Net:

City of Oklahoma City: http://www.okc.gov

Bricktown Association: http://www.bricktownokc.com

Downtown Oklahoma City, Inc.: http://www.downtownokc.com

New Orleans Hornets: http://www.hornets.com

Brookings Institution: http://www.brookings.edu

AP-ES-11-25-05 1306EST


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