Excitement and encouragement — that's what I bring back from the recent Regional Leaders Trip to Oklahoma City. It's a message of what we can do. It's about recognizing the great gifts our community has, collaborating to celebrate and get the most from them. It's about vision, creativity and partnerships that give birth to great things. It's about a spirit that unleashes our businesses, our government and us, as individuals, to thrive.
Fifty community leaders made the trip to Oklahoma City with the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce's Center for Regional Advancement. I went as a private citizen who, yes, has been very involved in local politics and community issues for years, and who hurts to see our city mired in tough times.
Oklahoma City understands. Its own economy fell into deep decline in the early 1990s, but the people there were not resigned to wait for an upswing. Business, government and civic leaders banded together. They responded with bold initiatives that are now paying off for their citizens with record low unemployment, a new sports economy, and unheard-of trust in government and business.
If nothing else gets your attention about Oklahoma City, this should: It has half the unemployment rate we do! Half our 10.2 percent. We have a wonderful community, but jobs are key to everyone's quality of life, and we need more of them.
Oklahoma City's leaders, business owners and residents have invested in economic development to attract new employers. The wells may be pumping again on Oklahoma's famous wind-swept plains, but that wasn't the case as this resurgence took shape. And their economy now goes well beyond oil and gas, long perceived by many as their only driver. They have diversified with foreign direct investments, sports, water, higher education and health care in addition to their energy economy.
Take just one of those examples — sports. Oklahoma City has made a striking testament to its excitement about sports by building a beautiful new stadium right downtown. A recreational boom along the newly revitalized downtown river district draws athletes and families for rowing, kayaking, running, cycling and other fitness activities. That draws a returning customer base for district retailers. The sports economy has not only brought jobs and new energy, but has also united the community. It's a tremendous source of civic pride. No mountains, no natural whitewater anywhere nearby, no headquarters of the nation's premier sports committee, but they made it happen.
Colorado Springs is one of the best places in the country in which to live, work and play. We do have the mountains, we have hundreds of brilliant, sunny days each year, and we have a very willing and well-educated, if underutilized, workforce. Our natural assets are the envy of communities throughout the nation, but our people are still our most valuable resource.
We heard from several Oklahoma City leaders that it is imperative to create the most collaborative, inclusive and diverse community, so we can all invest in building a more vibrant economy. Over that week, I learned that through creative strategic partnerships, our business, nonprofit and government sectors can work more closely together to build and strengthen the infrastructure of our community to attract and retain more jobs and talent.
Oklahoma City is not Colorado Springs, but after a week there, I am even more committed to telling the story of our community so we can celebrate all that is working here.
OKC's story doesn't make me want to be just like those fine Oklahomans, resourceful as they are. Rather, it just inspires me to step up and make the case for investing in the best of what we can offer, and for improving what is not. It is this approach, this core value, that has led to record low unemployment in OKC. It is this collaborative spirit that has ultimately prompted the citizens there to willingly make huge investments in their community to attract and retain top employers and talent.
General Palmer knew ours was a very special place, worthy of big investments ... and that remains true today.
Mary Ellen McNally, a former City Council member, is a Colorado Springs community activist, involved in many local nonprofits.
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