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Robert Henry’s return to OCU is top MidCity story for 2010

Downtown development, local economy, political and cultural trends round out top 10 stories

When Robert Henry left the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit to become president of Oklahoma City University, he not only made a significant personal decision, he also committed himself to turning a good private university into a great one. Judge Henry’s decision to become President Henry is The City Sentinel’s top MidCity story of 2010.

Henry left a good paying job with great benefits and lifetime tenure to take the OCU post. He had served 16 years on the circuit court, after a hitch as Oklahoma attorney general and five terms in the state House.

Despite his distinguished judicial and policy tenures, accepting the OCU post was a kind of homecoming for the Shawnee native. He was dean of the law school 1991-94, and previously taught both graduate and undergraduate classes at the Methodist-affiliated institution.

In the course of nine years, Tom McDaniel, Henry’s predecessor, built OCU’s private fundraising base and oversaw simultaneous improvements in academic reputation, and renewed integration into the MidCity community.

The view of many is that Robert Henry has the leadership, fundraising and personal skills to take OCU to “the next level.”

The second top story for 2010 is the beginning of a dramatic transformation of downtown Oklahoma City. The massive tower emerging as new headquarters of the Devon Energy Corporation will be the tallest building in Oklahoma. A total of $1.5 billion in construction, funded by both taxpayers and private money, will lead the rebirth. While Devon leads the way, SandRidge Energy’s redevelopment of the Kerr-McGee headquarters and adjacent Kerr Park is another significant milestone.

Over the next two years, Project 180 will bring roughly $140 million in improvements to streets, sidewalks and parks downtown. Just over the horizon: improvements expected to flow from MAPS 3, including the “core-to-shore” project and other programs still in design.

Some five miles north of downtown is the scene of the third top story for 2010: continued transformation of the area in and around the headquarters of Chesapeake Energy — just south of N.W. 63, and bounded by I-235 on the east, Classen on the west and I-44 on the south.

Ranking fourth among 2010’s top stories – with room for debate that perhaps it should rank higher – is the Oklahoma City economy, and the closely related state of city government finances.

Unemployment rates in Oklahoma City crept closer to 7 percent at year’s end, yet after serious doldrums city tax revenues have enjoyed eight consecutive months of growth. The city ranks high in virtually every index of economic health, and was recently deemed the second best retirement location for military retirees. Oklahoma City is likely to participate in the continuing economic recovery in the wake of “The Great Recession.”

The troubled economy roiled circumstances for those most marginalized citizens, leading to record-setting use of food stamps and necessitating heroic work at charitable groups like The Education and Employment Ministry (TEEM), City Rescue Mission, Habitat for Humanity and others. Tough circumstances led United Way and other worthy causes to set record-setting fundraising goals, not all of which were met.

The fifth top mid-city story might be ranked the Oklahoma’s top political news event by some: the Republican sweep of all 11 statewide elected positions and the election of Mary Fallin as the state’s first female governor.

The 2010 campaign completed Oklahoma’s steady transformation from a Democratic bastion at statehood through the days of the late Robert S. Kerr, Sr. and into the modern era, with the political dominance former Gov. and U.S. Sen. David Boren, now president at the University of Oklahoma.

Despite the grim new picture for Democrats statewide, a strong liberal or “progressive” presence in the center of Oklahoma City manifested itself.

State Sen. Andrew Rice gained overwhelming re-election, easily withstanding the Republican tide. He will serve as Senate Minority Leader and is on the panel preparing new legislative district lines. Reapportionment is one of the most significant legislative functions performed every decade.

Also returning in a strong electoral position is state Rep. Al McAffrey. He won reelection comfortably and, just before Christmas was assigned to important committees, including Public Health, and Administrative Rules and Government Oversight.

Leavening the MidCity picture are two conservative Republican state representatives, David Dank and Jason Nelson, who have also carved out notable niches at the state Capitol.

Once upon a time, “country counties” were bastions of Democratic strength. With the massive surge to Republicans in places like Poteau and other parts of eastern Oklahoma, the days of “little Dixie” as the heart of strength for the party of Jefferson may be over. However, comparative strength for Democrats in our MidCity (and in Tulsa) may hint at an eventual Renaissance for the party’s fortunes.

The sixth top story for 2010 is continued tension between city management and the council, on one side, and police and fire unions on the other.  In December 2009, Oklahoma City voters passed the MAPS 3 plan, but police and fire unions have been critical of some MAPS 3 priorities. They specifically assert their members need more fiscal attention from city fathers.

The seventh top story is the state of education – public and private – in the MidCity. Controversy emerged around announced plans of city council members and other civic leaders to jump deeper into public school governance issues. After the Foundation for Oklahoma City Public Schools detailed lackluster or lagging academic performance, disagreements among school board and council members ensued, for a time dominating news coverage.

On the other hand, implementation of the historic MAPS for Kids program  wrapped up for Wilson Elementary in the Heritage Hills neighborhood. The “arts integration” school is one of the city’s best examples of a public school with significant direct financial support from the private sector, allowing enhancements to the MAPS plans. Also, early stages of improvements are under way at Taft, Northwest and other sites.

Rep. Jason Nelson crafted one of the most significant education reforms in recent state history. He worked with East-side Rep. Anastasia Pittman and others to establish the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships, allowing children with special needs to access public funds to seek the best educational setting, including private providers. Some districts in the Tulsa area initially refused to implement the program, raising concerns of possible civil rights violations. The program is modeled on successful efforts in other states.

The eighth top story is the continued resilience and renewal of MidCity neighborhoods.

In neighborhood news, the Paseo Arts District was designated one of the American Planning Association’s “10 Great Neighborhoods for 2010.” In making the announcement, the group pointed to the area’s architecture, commercial enterprises, affordable housing and unrivaled arts community.

In the Plaza District, where Lyric Theatre now has its year-round headquarters, Hispanic-owned and operated enterprises have emerged in the last half-decade as another sign of new vitality in the heart of the city.

The MidCity’s strong residential base continues to be anchored by Heritage Hills, Mesta Park (where park and sidewalk improvements have been notable), Crown Heights, Edgemere Heights, Linwood, Gatewood and other neighborhoods with strong associations and involved citizen activists.

The heart of Oklahoma City remains vibrant and diverse the 9th top story, from its mixed economy to the range of faith communities, and the lifestyles of local residents. These MidCity realities, chronicled regularly in the pages of The City Sentinel, add up to the #9 “top story” for 2010.

The plethora of arts and entertainment options in Oklahoma constitute our tenth top story of the year. Theatrical endeavors range from the professional City Repertory Theatre through the range of threatrical offerings at Lyric, Carpenter Square and other companies.

Outstanding theater also came at such non-profit venues as St. Luke’s Poteet Little Theatre and First Baptist Church. Poteet’s “Diary of Anne Frank” was among the most moving MidCity dramas of recent years, while First Baptist’s “It’s A Wonderful Life” could become a Christmas season staple.

Note: This overview was prepared by the senior editor, in consultation with editor Stacy Martin and our staff writers. If you think we missed a major story cluster or theme, send a letter or essay to [email protected] and we’ll consider it for publication early next year.

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