OKC’s Innovation District will reshape northeastern Oklahoma City with MAPS 4 funding and other incentives in the next several years. However, shaping those changes to ensure the reflect a diverse, inclusive path forward – and not gentrification – is the work of Innovation District board.
Mayor David Holt said it’s important to keep in mind that the Innovation District “isn’t happening on an island.”
Emphasizing that the OU Health Sciences Center and surrounding medical facilities are a “foundation on which to build,” Holt also talked about the importance of the district in diversifying Oklahoma’s economy.
“The city’s leadership has been focused on a diverse economy since at least the ‘80s,” Holt said. “That requires focusing on sectors beyond oil and gas, while maintaining a commitment to energy. It’s been a great year for energy; they’ve contributed to Oklahoma having the lowest unemployment in the country. The district unites many other sectors under one cohesive brand, though, and creates places where innovation — broadly understood — can grow.”
Katy Boren, Innovation District president and CEO, said one of the ways the district leadership is avoiding the island effect is in the different models of development between previous strategies and the current one.
“In contrast to previous developments — taking property, imminent domain, etc. — we’re making the community part of the process, from input to engagement, but also opportunities to participate in development,” she said.
Innovation districts worldwide are showing tremendous potential to reshape urban and exurban areas, leading to reinvestment, repurposing, new growth and an influx of risk-taking firms and residents. The downside can always be related to how development occurs: gentrification that ignores existing neighborhoods and residents, or equitable development that provides opportunity and inclusivity to residents, businesses and organizations with a long history in the area.
“Innovation is needed,” Councilmember Nikki Nice (Ward 7) said. “But it has to be inclusive and give access to all, including northeast residents who have a stake in those neighborhoods and surrounding areas. That intentionality begins with the board. It needs to be inclusive, with residents who are adjacent to the district, HOAs, and people who live, work and play there.”
Boren said she is working with Nice to bring about a more inclusive district.
looking at ways that residents can own businesses, develop properties and have access to capital,” Boren said. “The TIF earmarks specific funds to be reinvested in STEM programs in northeast OKC. We have programs going in area high schools, a STEM program in Thelma Parks Elementary, and of course, MAPS 4 provides funds for four projects in the district, including the Henrietta B. Foster Center.”
The center’s full name is the Henrietta B. Foster Center for Northeast Small Business Development and Entrepreneurship, for which MAPS 4 allocates $15 million, a tiny portion of a nearly $1 billion package. Nice said the center isn’t enough of an investment in legacy businesses and historic neighborhoods, and said the small amount seems to solidify her point. Where Boren and district leadership can help is in bridging the divide between new, massive projects with price tags in the hundreds of millions of dollars and small businesses owned by entrepreneurs who have been working for decades in the northeast quadrant.
“There is an inadequate pool of businesses ready and equipped to take advantage of these opportunities,” Quintin Hughes said.
Hughes is a strategic advisor for community development in the private sector and president of the board for Northeast OKC Renaissance, an organization created “to advocate for ethical redevelopment considerate of housing, education, safety, wellness, economic development, and preservation of African American arts and culture.” He is also the newest member of the board of the Innovation District.
“The district can help with small business beyond just the Foster Center, and they can help existing businesses and potential stakeholders take advantage of these opportunities,” Hughes said. “As for the Foster Center, though, the board needs to support community efforts to decide what the center will look like.”
For Hughes and other community leaders that means working with existing structures and organizations like NEOKC Renaissance, the Black Chamber of Commerce, and surrounding neighborhoods. According to Hughes, Boren has already taken positive steps in that direction.
“I have seen her do a tremendous amount to grow diversity on the board,” Hughes said. “She also sits on the board of NEOKC Renaissance. She’s reached outside the district to foster relationships, too. These are positive signs, but it will take a long time to build trust given that it was broken over generations, including elder stakeholders now who actually lost land and assets in previous development plans.”
Both Boren and Holt spoke about the importance of reconnecting northeast OKC with the growth and development experienced in the urban core as a result of the MAPS Projects.
“What city leaders and I would like to see is a reconnection to the larger community around the Innovation District,” Holt said. “We want to see longtime and new residents benefit from the district. We’re funding projects with MAPS, and we’ve seen the private sector respond to what’s happening, and so there is movement to bring those communities back into the larger scope of what is happening in OKC.”
Boren said the investment dollars must work to bridge the entire area together.
“Some of the money we’re investing in the district is designed to create pathways to the STEM jobs that will be here,” Boren said. “That’s why we’re investing in public schools, neighborhood organizations and small businesses. We want to create an inclusive district.”
The commitment to remove what Hughes called physical, economic, emotional and metaphorical walls between the northeast side and the rest of OKC — symbolized best by the ways highways were intentionally designed to segregate communities — is what’s in view here. All the stakeholders talk about it as if it’s a possibility, and Boren’s name comes up in multiple ways as someone who is committed to diversifying the Innovation District so that, to borrow a phrase from Nice, everyone concerned can have access to housing, connectivity, entrepreneurial opportunities, and placemaking in and inclusive and equitable manner.