Avoiding the swelling and crashing of the housing tsunami has been a
primary cause of Oklahoma City's success. How did they miss the wave?
Shirley said the answer goes back to 1982, and Penn Square Bank. Penn
Square was a small, risky commercial bank that exploded in the late
1970s and imploded in the 1982 just as falling energy consumption
hurt oil prices and slammed the Oklahoma economy. The Savings and Loans
Crisis followed, but it was Penn Square took down the energy industry
and the banking industry.
"Over 100 banks closed," she said. "The state ground to a halt. And the
bankers today remember the crisis. They've developed very safe, very
conservative banking practices since that catastrophic event in the
Built on the dependable pillars of local government spending, military
(Tinker Air Force Base is the top employer), health care and
education, the city is poised for strong and steady growth in the next
few years. I asked the Shirley and the mayor what they thought might be the next engine of the Oklahoma economy.
"We don't really care," she responded. "What we're looking at is a
balanced economy. We learned from the 1980s that having a one-trick
pony just wasn't going to do it. We're looking at creating a more firm
That's when the mayor offered an fascinating re-casting of the new
economy: "The 20th century perspective was that people went where the
jobs were," he said. "Today the jobs are going to go where the people
are. Highly talented young people are coming to us because of the low
cost of living. People want to work here."
The bust revealed a scary truth: we can't afford what very recently
passed for the American dream. We cannot run up debt equal to 122
percent of our yearly earnings, as we did during the late aughts. That
means Americans will seek out cheaper places to live, where high
quality of life goes for a bargain. Today, the cities that can offer
that aren't the LAs and NYCs but rather the San Antonios and
Put another way: In an economy where people follow quality of living,
and jobs follow people, cities with low cost-of-living will be the
early winners in the recovery.
Indeed, they already are. Eighteen of Brookings' 20 "strongest cities" (all except Washington and
VA Beach) have average or below average cost-of-living, according to a new Wall Street Journal story.
At a time when Washington can't seem to get employers and employees
together, employment has been sticky where wages and living have been
What's more, Oklahoma has the highest entrepreneur levels of any state,
according to a recent report from the Kauffman Foundation. Mayor
Cornett says it's easy to see why. "College graduates are moving to the
metro area in high numbers because they see how far their money goes in
housing and living," he said. "You're raising a generation of people who can't afford their own house. The American dream is alive and well in Oklahoma City."