With a hand in nearly every downtown OKC initiative in the past 20 years, Cathy O’Connor has enacted real change as president and CEO of the Alliance for Economic Development of Oklahoma City. She previously served as assistant city manager and as the City’s finance director.
Committed to the redevelopment of distressed areas, O’Connor has spearheaded myriad community projects around town. She is also active in a variety of community organizations, including Oklahoma CREW, the Foundation for Oklahoma City Public Schools, the United Way of Central Oklahoma, and the Downtown Oklahoma City Partnership. We caught up with O’Connor and got her thoughts on…
… lessons she’s learned
in previous jobs.
How important the team is. Economic development requires participation by so many different individuals: developers, investors, company leadership, elected officials, city employees and the public. Many of our most significant projects in Oklahoma City have required public participation, meaning that we are using public funding to attract very large private development.
… what drew her to this job.
It was the opportunity to create the Alliance the way we knew economic development should be done. While I was at the City, we began identifying the resources that could be managed by the same entity, so that we had many different economic development tools under one umbrella. We knew it would enhance our speed, efficiency and opportunities, and would elevate Oklahoma City’s ability to compete at a higher level for companies that are relocating and expanding.
… the Alliance’s core mission.
I would say economic development, but I don’t think that’s a term that most of the public fully understands. Our core mission is to make it easy to work with Oklahoma City, so that we attract new development, new industry and new jobs and make Oklahoma City a better place to live.
If a new developer needs some guidance on new construction or renovation, he or she has a one-stop shop with guidance to navigate the requirements and approval processes. We cut the red tape and shorten the learning curve. If a company is looking for the right place to expand, the Alliance can acquire adjacent parcels of land, sometimes held by government agencies, and compile those into a large acreage needed for a new industrial or warehouse business.
… greatest accomplishments.
My entire career has been an eye-opening experience that has furthered my commitment to the redevelopment of distressed areas. I led efforts to create a local funding source for affordable housing, and have worked with small developers and investors to encourage construction of single-family homes in neighborhoods targeted for investment. I’d point to Culbertson’s East Highland neighborhood, and the apartments at Page Woodson where the Alliance has increased high quality, affordable housing in the urban core.
Early in the creation of the Alliance, I worked with the city to create a Tax Increment Financing District for Northeast Oklahoma City to incentivize investment in this part of town. In 2015, I began working with a developer to renovate the multi-tenant retail building at 23rd Street and Rhode Island Avenue. The EastPoint Project has over 41,000 square feet of renovated single-story retail and office space and is already home to Centennial Health, Kindred Spirits and other businesses.
I mark one of my most significant accomplishments to be the Homeland grocery store, nearly completed at NE 36th and Lincoln. Northeast Oklahoma City lacked a full service grocery store for nearly 20 years, and that created hardship for people who lived there – they had to drive for miles to get fresh produce and meat. I was determined to solve the puzzle and I worked on it for years, with several starts and failed deals. I finally found the right grocery partner in Homeland.
… Oklahoma in 10-20 years.
I hope that we continue to challenge our own identity and always ask: “What do we want our city to be?” I hope we never “arrive” and get satisfied with where we are.
When I dream about what our city will be like in 10-20 years, I keep coming back to our heightened awareness of social and racial justice issues. We have come far and we still have so much we need to address. As part of MAPS 4, we will build the Clara Luper Civil Rights Center to honor Oklahoma City’s African American history and culture, the struggles for civil rights and racial justice, and the people who pursued those rights for themselves and generations to come. In the Innovation District, MAPS 4 will fund the redevelopment of the Henrietta B. Foster Center into a Minority Small Business and Entrepreneurship Center to provide wealth building opportunities while giving new life to this historically significant building.