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Future Of MAPS 3 Convention Center Uncertain After Oklahoma City Drops Land Bid

Mar 6, 2015

Tuesday afternoon Oklahoma City leaders announced they would start looking for a new site for the convention center that's part of the Metropolitan Area Projects, or MAPS 3, proposal voters approved in 2009.

“It became obvious to the City Manager, the Municipal Counselor and me that purchasing this proposed MAPS 3 Convention Center site is not in the best interest of our residents and the MAPS program,” Mayor Mick Cornett said in a statement. “This protects the integrity of the MAPS program and shows our commitment to build every MAPS 3 project within budget while meeting or exceeding the expectations of our residents.”

The surprising move stems from a dispute over the price of land at the site just south of the Myriad Gardens where a car dealership once stood.

“The city has budgeted about $13 million for the land, and the current owners, a group called REHCO, thinks it’s worth more than $100 million, and they’ve based that rate on other projects that have been built downtown recently, just as the Devon Tower,” says the Journal Record’s managing editor Adam Brooks. “We had just heard that they were negotiating. We didn’t realize they were so far apart, and there had been an eminent domain process going on. We’d been told that was just the way things are done during these sorts of negotiations.”

Those lawsuits in Oklahoma County District Court have been dismissed, which the city says marks the end of its process to acquire the land. The Journal Record’s Brian Brus reports three commissioners were trying to determine a fair market value due to the nearly $90 million price difference.

Cathy O’Connor, president of the Alliance for Economic Development of Oklahoma City, said Tuesday it became apparent in recently filed documents that REHCO, the group representing ownership of the property, was expecting something well beyond the city’s range. Bob Howard leads REHCO.

City leaders had already started to move ahead with plans to develop a hotel to serve the convention center. O’Connor said interested parties would be reassured that the municipal government still intends to follow through.

“I think it may delay things a little bit, but I think everything will work out fine,” she said.

The MAPS 3 temporary penny sales tax increase went into effect in 2010 and continues through December 2017. It’s designed to raise $777 million for what Cornett often calls “quality of life initiatives.”

A public park will extend from downtown to the Oklahoma River as part of the “Core to Shore” project, along with a streetcar transit system, running trails, and health centers. But at the centerpiece of the entire initiative was the convention center, and Brooks says symbolically, Tuesday’s decision was huge.

“So much was geared around this. This was going to be right at the head of the park. It was going to connect downtown to the park,” Brooks said. “The streetcar was going to run past it. The planned Crosstown Blvd. along the old [Interstate] 40 footprint was going to run right past it. It was just a really, really prominent piece of this puzzle.”

Traffic passes by the Cox Convention Center in downtown Oklahoma City.
Credit Brent Fuchs / The Journal Record

City officials haven’t conceded that this sets the convention center project back to square one, but they also haven’t announced a new timeline for the project that originally promised a convention center in 2017. Brooks says several sites originally considered in 2009 could be back on the table.

“There was east Bricktown. There was one on Shields. And they even talked about redeveloping the Cox Center,” Brooks says. “Any of those spots might not fit the budget now because land prices have gone up as downtown has developed. And the problem with redeveloping the Cox Center is might you lose your major convention space for a couple of years, and that is probably not good for business.”

Ward  2 Councilman Ed Shadid told Brus he’s interested in the Cox Convention Center, a strong contender six years ago.

“At least study the heck out of that option as fast as you can,” Shadid said. “Because I’m not seeing a large parcel of land in Oklahoma City within the current budget that’s close to everything they want to be close to. Why not put that money into developing your current convention center site, which we already own?”

[Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority Executive Director Cathy ] O’Connor confirmed those four city blocks have plenty of room for an adjacent hotel, which city leaders have said is a key element to the success of a new convention center. On that point, O’Connor said she emailed hotel developers Wednesday morning about the change in plans to reassure them that their attention and efforts would not be wasted.

Shadid was upbeat about what comes next.

“As much fear as this might induce, I think this is actually a great turn of events for MAPS 3 and Oklahoma City,” he said. “It’s going to lead to such a superior outcome. This was always going to be perhaps the most expensive piece of real estate in the state of Oklahoma.”

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