Sunday, August 28, 2011

The truth about the "Chamber junta"

I want to start revving up my reaction against the convention center site location again. I have a feeling the location debate was blown wide open by the council standing firm against a $30 million budget increase for the project. Obviously it won't affect anything. Anything that anyone, or however MANY people say, even if they are echoed by a councilman sitting on the horseshoe--won't have any chance in effecting a change in course on this convention center.

Explaining this absolutely ridiculous CC subcommittee, who do they think they are?
A lot of attention around the rogue MAPS 3 Convention Center Subcommittee, that so-called "Chamber junta" as they have been aptly labeled by all of the alternative media, has focused on the role of Larry Nichols. Nichols is a local civic warrior who is pushing relentless for what he sees as OKC's best interest, and his influence and power is surging. As he minimized his day-to-day role in running Devon to focus more on his civic ambitions, he has taken the bull by the horns when it comes to this city (I think a very apropos analogy), and I suppose one could say that the arrival of his influence in the last year or so has been felt with the subtlety of a steer mounting a comely heifer. Every conspiracy theorist in town is wanting to blame anything that smells fishy on him, and every respectable leader in town is too afraid to even set the record straight because they don't want to mis-speak when it comes to Nichols. But Nichols is not a corrupt overlord, and I like to believe his interests are mostly above-board. There, I said it, sue me.

This whole "let's lynch Larry Nichols" thing has been a distraction from what I think is the real problem with this "Chamber junta." There are a lot of hotel owners and operators and assorted interests aligned with them that are on this subcommittee. I mean existing hotels, like the Skirvin, Colcord, Renaissance, Courtyard, Sheraton, and so on. The hotel operators that have the most local influence are immediately around the Cox Center, not by virtue of their Broadway or Robinson address, but by virtue of their working relationship with the CVB. The CVB wants to maintain those relationships, for right or for wrong, in spite of what we obviously know that these hotels are amazingly inadequate for handling the convention needs of a "Tier 2" city. We need to start from scratch because a scattering of around 800 rooms over 4-5 separate hotels is a joke and is not going to impress anyone.

In fact, we were going to locate this thing across from the current I-40, and the proximity concern raised by planners had nothing to do with THESE hotels but rather to Bricktown. We have known, mostly all along, that we will have to start over on the hotel front. But we also didn't think we would have to start over on the entertainment and restaurant front, we expected to keep using Bricktown for that, and we also knew that would be a lot harder to recreate in Core2Shore than the hotels would be.

Basically our hotel picture is a small scattering of rooms around the Cox, and probably an equally sized (albeit getting larger with the aLoft) cluster of rooms around Bricktown. Why is ONE of these clusters, particularly the one that is going to be smaller soon, more important to stay close to than the other? Ask that question. The answer is that this has everything to do with these hotels exerting local influence on the convention and hospitality industry, which is running this convention center subcommittee. Obviously, these hotels are at capacity with their current monopoly on the hotel market. More hotels means they will take a hit and may-gasp-only be fairly profitable. (Let's not understate the booming state of the downtown hotels, which are all benefiting from increasing demand and abnormally low supply for a city our size) These guys aren't going to go out of business by bringing in more hotels or starting over with the convention-front, but they won't enjoy being booked solid anymore.

And I've been told by a past president of the Bricktown Association in person that they feel helpless in advancing their cause for anything against these bigger interests because they already have the Ballpark and the Canal. They wish they could pick up "that damn ballpark" and move it to Core2Shore if it's the reason their concerns don't get heard. It may seem insane to outsiders to say that Bricktown interests are being trumped by hotel operators, but it's just the truth that I see.

Can urbanism stand on its own as an agenda?
The interesting thing about OKC's activist circles is that all of the progressives have traditionally been tied to the economic development agenda for the sake of survival. Without the economic development agenda or dare I say "momentum," there is no push for a progressive agenda either. The Chamber can at least make token progress on the issues that progressives care about.

I want to pose a big question. Can a progressive agenda for urbanism and sustainability stand on its own, and take on competing factions on its own? I see MAPS 3 as resembling a bond between progressives and juntas, both attracting voter support from different ends, and I see the last few months as this show of bait-and-switch. Progressive votes were baited with certain items, and then the switch came when the convention center nobody wanted became the new priority, at the expense of other projects. Did progressives really get a bad deal? The streetcar and park might not even be happening without the convention center. We know that voters overwhelmingly took sides with the progressive items and did not like that convention center at all, but--do we have anything else resembling real proof that a progressive agenda can stand on its own and not depend on whoring itself out to the convention center interests?

This past marriage of convenience of progressive issues and the chamber junta makes for odd bed fellows indeed.

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