Public investment: Better to be lucky than smart?

A story  in USA Today, “Oklahoma City defies recession,” focuses on OKC as the city with the 2nd lowest unemployment rate in the country. In response to questions about OKC’s secret to success, Roy Williams of the OKC Chamber said it is

Luck, as much as anything. We’re doing the right things, in the right place, at the right time.

At least one of the “right things” that Williams refers to includes investing in the community. The story focuses on what happened in OKC when a 4-million square foot GM plant closed. The closure of an auto plant hardly makes OKC unique. What the people of OKC did next is what distinguishes us.

Voters agreed to pay $55 million for the GM property and lease it to the military. The military is investing about $100 million over five years to convert the plant. “We’re hiring right now,” [Air Force Col. Randall] Burke says.

This was just one in a long string of projects which voters in OKC agreed to fund to improve the community. Starting with the Metropolitan Area Projects (MAPS), which was narrowly approved by voters in 1993, the city has been able to invest in improving quality of life, schools, and even the economic landscape of OKC..

All of this makes me think as I read a quote from Mayor Cornett in the article which has the same humble sentiment as Roy Williams’.

Oklahoma City tried to become a hub for manufacturing airplanes, expanding on the aerospace industry that surrounds the Air Force base. Then comes the recession. People don’t buy new planes. They repair what they’ve got. Oklahoma City does repair and overhaul. Voilà! Better be lucky than smart.

I can’t help but think that this humbleness displayed by Mayor Cornett and by Roy Williams may be misplaced. I am not saying that there was no luck involved, but sometimes you create your own luck. The voters of OKC gave Williams and Mayor Cornett the ammunition they needed to make good things happen in OKC and the ability to capitalize on “opportunities” (isn’t that what consultants tell us to call challenges now?). The voters of OKC deserve credit for being forward thinking enough to invest in our community, which is smart. I hope we keep the progress going when it comes time for the next MAPS initiative.

So, is it better to be lucky than smart? Who knows? It looks as if the people of OKC have made some smart decisions and had a little luck on our side too. Would it be too boastful to think that we are both lucky and smart?


Oklahoma Policy Insititute (OK Policy) advances equitable and fiscally responsible policies that expand opportunity for all Oklahomans through non-partisan research, analysis, and advocacy.

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