MERRILLVILLE — A mayor from the Great Plains visited the Region on Thursday to share a tale of his city’s efforts to break out of cycles of boom and bust, to create a quality of life that attracts new residents — and to lose a million pounds along the way.
Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett addressed about 600 public officials, business people and nonprofit leaders gathered at the Radisson Hotel at Star Plaza for the One Region organization’s annual Leadership Luncheon.
The fourth-term mayor’s hometown lived fast in its first century, cycling through “the best of times and worst of times.” Founded on a spring day in 1889 with a literal land rush, “the population of Oklahoma City went from zero to 10,000 in one day,” Cornett said.
It lived on commodities, and its economy rose and fell with their prices — first cotton, then wheat, then oil and natural gas. By the early 1990s, after a tough decade and a failed $150 million bid to land a United Airlines maintenance hub, leaders were left wondering what to do.
United had chosen Indianapolis, and when Oklahoma City’s then-mayor asked why, United executives told him that after a weekend in Oklahoma City, “they couldn’t imagine their employees living there.”
Cornett said the sprawling city had the quality of sprawling suburbs. “We were trying to be a suburb of nothing, and that is not a sustainable model,” he said.
That led to an investment plan fueled by hard-won penny-on-the-dollar sales taxes that led to a convention center, sports arenas, art facilities and associated investment, and then to a major school reconstruction and rehabilitation program. Instead of corporate economic incentives, “we realized that the key to economic development was really about the quality of life in your community,” Cornett said.
As Oklahoma City’s leading promoter, Cornett touted its growing appearance on various “Best of...” lists. But then he discovered its placement on another list — that of the most obese cities in America.
That prompted a new initiative — an effort to link city planning and public health. “Our city had developed a pretty good quality of life,” Cornett said, “if you happened to be a car.”
He began talking to his fellow citizens about the obesity problem, and created the campaign for residents collectively to lose one million pounds. And, he started projects to “change the built environment.” Downtown had “the most unfriendly pedestrian environment,” Cornett said.
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The plan included narrower, easier to cross intersections, new biking and walking paths, senior citizen health centers, a new downtown park and installation of sidewalks in neighborhoods that had never had them.
The million pounds were lost, and the city made a list of fittest cities. And Oklahoma City has begun attracting new residents. Cornett is now president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and travels the country trumpeting the virtues of an urban planning that focuses on quality of life, including via a TED talk that has had nearly 1.5 million views online.
Thursday’s Leadership Luncheon was the first event in what Co-Chairman Thomas Keon called “a new beginning” for One Region.
“We do feel very good about One Region and about what One Region can do for Northwest Indiana,” said Keon, the chancellor of Purdue University Northwest.
Chris White, publisher of The Times Media Co. and co-chairman with Keon, noted that a recent survey has shown Region residents want leaders “to really act and think and function as one region.”
He noted the area’s singular position as part of the state of Indiana and the Chicago metropolitan area.
“We’re the best part of Indiana; we’re the best part of Chicago,” White said.
One Region’s new president and CEO, Leah Konrady, urged attendees to become ambassadors for Northwest Indiana.
“Now is the time to re-imagine Northwest Indiana,” Konrady said. “We have all the ingredients to make Northwest Indiana a place people want to live, work and play.”