Free Enterprise Staff  | February 20, 2015

Behind Oklahoma City’s Booming Economy, Lessons for Up-and-Coming Cities

Oklahoma City is something of an enigma. Located in the Great Plains, the city doesn’t benefit from a temperate climate or a lush natural landscape. Even so, young people are continuing to move there in large numbers, a trend that has only accelerated over the past decade.

What’s attracting them? Depending on whom you ask, you’ll likely hear any range of responses. It has a nice feel. It’s laid back without being sleepy. It’s the perfect compromise between the bustle of places like Chicago and the placidity of smaller towns like Tulsa.

Anecdotal tales notwithstanding, there are some hard facts that are undeniable. Between 2004 and 2014, Oklahoma City’s population expanded by roughly 50,000. Yet unlike other cities that grew at a steady clip thanks to an influx of older retirees, Oklahoma City has become a go-to place for young, educated workers, whose share of the overall population increased over the same period of time.

According to a report from the City Observatory think tank, the share of Oklahoma City residents aged 25 to 34 who had a four-year degree increased from 25% in 2000 to 32% in 2012. Oklahoma City’s downtown neighborhoods also changed dramatically between 2000 and 2010, the report found, with its population of “young and restless” millennials—people aged 25-34 with a college degree—jumping 40%.

So, what’s driving this migration? Well, to a certain extent, success begets success. If most of your college friends are moving to a certain city or region, chances are greater that you’ll also consider relocating along with them. Yet there’s more at play in Oklahoma City, where both the government and the business community have teamed to actively transform the city into a more walkable, enjoyable place to call home.

Among the most vocal proponents of this movement has been the city’s mayor, Mick Cornett, who has been in office since 2004. Throughout his tenure, his government has trumpeted and instituted numerous modernization and quality-of-life programs such as MAPS 3, a standout initiative Cornett described in a 2013 TED talk.

Conceived as a 10-year, city-wide construction and development initiative, MAPS 3 sought to remake Oklahoma City into a healthier place for residents by creating more walking spaces, parks, and recreational areas. “Along with the traditional economic development tasks like building a new convention center, we added some health-related infrastructure to the process,” the mayor said.

“We added a new central park—70 acres in size—to be right downtown. We’re building a downtown streetcar to try to help the walkability formula for people who choose to live in the inner city. We’re in the final stages of developing the finest venue in the world for the sports of canoe, kayak, and rowing. We have Olympic-caliber events coming to Oklahoma City, and athletes from all over the world are moving in.”

The effort, which helped lower Oklahoma City’s dangerously high obesity rate, also enhanced the city’s allure for millennials, who value walkability and convenience when choosing where to live. The city’s efforts in this space have even landed them in a U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Corporate Citizenship Center research report highlighting the efforts of four cities working to prevent obesity.

Additionally, these kinds of initiatives led to a revitalization of Oklahoma City’s urban core, creating the kinds of neighborhoods that—once again—young people want to live in. Millennials are, in fact, more than twice as likely as other age groups to live in such “close-in urban neighborhoods,” according to City Observatory researchers.

As a result of this kind of demographic migration, more and more businesses have similarly incorporated in Oklahoma City’s innermost neighborhoods. The growing number of companies has had a kind of compounding effect, drawing more young, educated residents hoping to take advantage of the metro area’s robust job market. (Favorable state and city regulations have also helped.)

And robust it is: According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the December metro area unemployment rate of 3.6% was two percentage points below the national average. It’s this kind of jobs growth that has propelled the city’s economy forward, earning it recognition from policy institutes, economists, government officials, and organizations like Kiplinger’s, which recently declared Oklahoma City the top U.S. city to start a business.

As Kiplinger’s noted in its assessment, Oklahoma’s state capital has a singular entrepreneurial economy, even when compared to such traditional economic powerhouse cities as Boston and Chicago: “Oklahoma City is home to more than 18,600 small businesses, nearly double the national average for all metro areas,” according to the news organization. “It also sports the second-highest number of small businesses per 10,000 people on this list.”

Unquestionably, another factor contributing to Oklahoma City’s mounting economic and civic momentum is how affordable it is for residents—a fact recently recognized by Forbes, which ranked it as one of the most affordable places to live in the U.S. According to Zillow, the median home value in Oklahoma City is $121,000. For comparison, that figure stands at slightly more than $1 million in San Francisco and roughly $554,000 in New York City.

So, as it turns out, there is no single variable responsible for Oklahoma City’s emergence as an up-and-coming hub for millennials, but rather an amalgam of factors. It’s an enthusiastic mayor and an agreeable local government; it’s the public-private partnerships that have transformed formerly neglected neighborhoods; it’s the new public works projects that have created a more vibrant downtown; it’s an affordable housing supply; and it’s also a fair bit of luck.

To a certain extent, there will always be a certain degree of mystery to the age-old question of why some cities, states, and countries modernize and economically thrive while others languish. In Oklahoma City, government officials, business leaders, and residents recognize this, but they’re nonetheless working together to ensure they improve areas they can control. It’s a strategy that’s worked thus far, and probably will moving forward.

This is the second installment of our multi-part, year-long #SiliconCitiesUSA Series 

What Is #SiliconCitiesUSA?

Over the course of this year, we’ll explore how entrepreneurs and businesses are faring in non-major U.S. cities, beginning with Des Moines, Iowa. We’ll be reporting on the ground from each city, talking with elected officials and business leaders about how they’re harnessing their unique resources and local talent to fuel economic growth and better compete against more established urban centers like San Francisco and New York City.