Oklahoma City's downtown made a major comeback after a long slump. What Winnipeg can learn from it

As Winnipeg emerges from an era of lockdowns and public health restrictions and begins to look at ways to revitalize the downtown, some are pointing to a city south of the border for ideas.

From a downtown that was 'dying,' how a U.S. city's mayor helped transform the core

A boat sails at sunset on Lake Hefner in Oklahoma City. The former mayor of that city is coming to Winnipeg to speak at the first ever State of the Downtown event. (Sue Ogrocki/The Associated Press)

As Winnipeg emerges from an era of lockdowns and public health restrictions and begins to look at ways to revitalize the downtown, some are pointing to a city south of the border for ideas.

Mick Cornett, the former mayor of Oklahoma City, Ok., is the keynote speaker at Winnipeg's first State of the Downtown event, hosted by the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, Downtown BIZ and Exchange District BIZ.

Cornett grew up in the south-central U.S. city at a challenging point in time. In the post-war era, people were leaving in droves.

"By 1990, downtown was pretty much vacant. There were still some jobs in the tall buildings, but there was basically no population living there. There was no retail, there were no restaurants, we were down to one hotel — and so the core of our city was dying," he said on CBC Manitoba's Information Radio Friday.

The decline came to a head in 1995 when the city's federal building was bombed in a notorious case of domestic terrorism, which killed 168 people, injured hundreds more and destroyed or damaged 325 buildings within a 16-block radius.

Former Oklahoma City mayor Mick Cornett will be speaking at Winnipeg's State of the Downtown on Tuesday. (Sue Ogrocki/The Associated Press)

Nine years later, Cornett began serving as the mayor of Oklahoma City, and would be re-elected three more times, serving until 2018.

During that period, he oversaw the creation of an arena, an National Basketball Association team, a 70-acre downtown park, a modern streetcar system, the country's most advanced white-water rafting facility, senior wellness centres and hundreds of kilometres of bike trails and sidewalks.

Fortune Magazine named Cornett one of the the 50 greatest leaders in the world for his work revitalizing the city.

The hosts of Winnipeg's State of the Downtown are billing it as an event where the community can envision and explore the future of the city's gathering place.

A 1995 file photo shows the north side of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City after an explosion that killed 168 people and injured hundreds. Former mayor Mick Cornett believes this bombing brought citizens together to work for a better city. (The Associated Press)

"We know there's plenty that makes downtown Winnipeg vibrant and unique. We also know there are many opportunities to grow as we recover and build back some of the momentum lost over the pandemic," Downtown BIZ marketing director Pam Hardman wrote in an email on Friday.

"We're looking forward to the learnings Mick will share from the growth in Oklahoma City's core, and hope that attendees of Tuesday's event walk away with a renewed understanding of why downtown matters."

Focus city on pedestrians, not cars

Cornett says one of the key lessons he learned as mayor was shaping the city around active transportation.

"We went through a period where we recognized that the health of the community was suffering, and from a wellness standpoint, we weren't set up to succeed," he said.

City leadership redesigned the entire downtown grid to be more walkable and more pedestrian-friendly, and then started building sidewalks and jogging and biking paths out into the suburban areas

Two people work out at Myriad Botanical Gardens over lunch in Oklahoma City. Former mayor Mick Cornett says the transformation of the downtown to focus on active transportation instead of cars was a big turning point. (Sue Ogrocki/The Associated Press)

"Over time, we started to realize that the health of the community is really based on the the social infrastructure and the physical infrastructure combined," Cornett said. 

"If you build a city around cars, you're not going to have as healthy a community as you would [otherwise]."

Another key was the fact that the initiatives were citizen-led, he said.

Through a tax-incentive program called Metropolitan Area Projects, or MAPS, Oklahoma City residents voted to impose a limited-term, one cent sales tax to help build downtown up debt-free.

Oklahoma City Thunder forward Lindy Waters III passes the ball in a game against the Phoenix Suns in Oklahoma City. Mick Cornett says citizens of the city came together to help expand the National Basketball League's presence. (Kyle Philips/The Associated Press)

The MAPS program was brought out in 1993, and hit a roadblock in 1995 following the bombing, but Cornett said the seeds from the program had been planted.

"Once the bombing happened, it was kind as if the the citizens grabbed hands and pulled each other up and said, 'We're not going to let the world tear us apart.' And that emotional bonding that took place, I think, was very powerful," he said.

"Citizens eventually started to develop some pride in the city, because they could see that some of these urban core projects were really neat. All of a sudden you had a city that was worth inviting family and friends from around the country to come see."

LISTEN | Former mayor Mick Cornett on how Oklahoma City's downtown came back from the brink:

After a 30-year decline, Oklahoma City's downtown has made an amazing comeback over the past two decades. Host Marcy Markusa speaks with Mick Cornett, the former mayor of Oklahoma City who helped oversee its renaissance.

The MAPS tax-incentive program was approved by citizens during Cornett's tenure two other times — once in 2001 to improve city schools and again in 2008 to fund improvements at the downtown arena and build an off-site practice facility for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Everyone should be proud of their downtown

Before any more major development can happen in Winnipeg's downtown, Cornett says stakeholders have to recognize the importance of the core area and prioritize it.

"I think the population in the suburbs has to understand that the quality of life in the suburbs is directly related to the intensity of the core, and so you need that buy-in. People should be proud of their own neighborhood, but they should also be proud of their own downtown," he said.

People cool off in the man-made white water at Riversport Oklahoma City. The city worked to fund the creation of the Oklahoma River, which was once a dry riverbed. (Sue Ogrocki/The Associated Press)

That's worked well for Oklahoma City, which went from the 28th largest U.S. city to the 22nd in 10 years.

Cornett said the fact the city is quite affordable compared to others on the East and West coasts, doesn't have as much traffic congestion and has an exciting downtown are all things that are attractive to young people.

"They aren't looking for the big cities. They're looking for smaller places where they can raise a family and afford to live. And I think that's things that Oklahoma City and Winnipeg can take advantage of."

Winnipeg a leader in its own right: urban geographer

Jino Distasio, a professor of urban geography at the University of Winnipeg and the former longtime director of its Institute of Urban Studies, said those points "check all the right boxes" — but they also happened before the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Oklahoma did do some great things and it's a very cool, vibrant city and downtown," he said.

"But to me the bigger picture right now is, 'What are you doing today? How is your community responding to emerging from this two-year real beatdown of the economy and of the imagination of what a downtown is or can be?'"

Distasio says  while Winnipeg may learn from Oklahoma City, it can also look to its own history for lessons.

"We came out of an extensive period of very significant decline from 1980 to about 2005. So for 25 years — a quarter century — Winnipeg really struggled," he said.

"But at the same time within that struggle, we tried anything and everything and we really became resilient and resourceful to finding ways to propel us forward."

Winnipeg has been a North American leader in its own right in bringing people together to come up with local solutions, Distasio says, pointing to the reimagining of The Forks and other projects that have brought more people to the city's core.

"I would suggest that Oklahoma could learn a lot from us [just as] we could probably learn a lot from their approaches," he said.


Rachel Bergen is a journalist for CBC Manitoba and previously reported for CBC Saskatoon. Email story ideas to

With files from Pat Kaniuga and Caitlyn Gowriluk


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