Cover Story: The playing field levels as more businesses and young professionals return to OKC 

click to enlarge Candace and Cory Baitz pose for a photo at the Myriad Gardens in Oklahoma City, Friday, July 17, 2015. - GARETT FISBECK
  • Garett Fisbeck
  • Candace and Cory Baitz pose for a photo at the Myriad Gardens in Oklahoma City, Friday, July 17, 2015.

For decades, America’s top-tier cities represented a handful of metropolitan regions that seemed to have a monopoly on innovation and culture. Cities like Oklahoma City, in the heart of “fly-over country,” lacked a seat at the table when it came to world-class entertainment and cutting-edge business. Even simpler facets of urban life, such as specialty coffee and trendy boutiques, were things Oklahoma City residents only enjoyed when visiting larger cities.

But cities like OKC seem to have more in common these days with larger metropolises and cultural hubs in a way they never did before.

Portland, Oregon, is a specialty coffee capital, but Oklahoma City has its fair share of high-end cafes. Silicon Valley remains the hub of tech startups, but app programmers and software creators are finding success in central Oklahoma.

Even Kevin Durant has shown that you no longer have to play in New York or Los Angeles to be a world-renowned athlete.

“These smaller-but-major metros are now realistic choices for educated young people with big aspirations,” wrote Aaron Renn in an article for Governing about the opportunities smaller cities now have. “It’s no surprise, then, that Salt Lake City is home to a huge Goldman Sachs office. Or that Apple has a large presence in Austin, Texas. Or that JPMorgan Chase & Co. employs more than 20,000 people in Columbus, Ohio.”

Renn was in OKC earlier this year to speak at the annual Mayor’s Development Roundtable, and his message was OKC had the opportunity to offer amenities that were once limited to America’s megacities.

“I can tell you that in 1992, moving from Chicago to Indianapolis would have basically been like being sent to Siberia,” Renn, who is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, said during his Oklahoma City speech. “You couldn’t get a decent meal [in Indianapolis], you couldn’t get a good cup of coffee, the type of life you could get in Indianapolis versus Chicago was just night and day. But Indianapolis today has more and better stuff than Chicago did in 1992.”

The urban playing field is much more level today, said Renn, as cities like “Oklahoma City, Columbus, Kansas City, Charlotte, Nashville are now in the game for development and business in a way [they] never were before.”

This shift helps OKC retain some of its younger residents or get back those who fled years ago for more interesting places to live.

“You can do anything from anywhere now, and that wasn’t always the case,” said Candace Baitz, a development manager at David Wanzer Development in OKC.

After leaving the state in 2003 for Los Angeles and then moving to Chicago, Baitz moved back to Oklahoma City with her husband because they felt there were professional advantages here that they couldn’t find in Chicago or New York.

“Everyone I was in college with or in high school with, everyone left because they wanted something better,” Baitz said.

OKC’s population of young adults — aged 20 to 34 — has grown by 21 percent since 2000, according to U.S. census figures, which is the fastest growth rate of large cities in the region of states surrounding Oklahoma.

While a growing entertainment and cultural scene can be credited for some of that growth, there are also more professional opportunities here than 15 years ago, when the national economy was not as level as it is today, Baitz said.

Larger cities might technically offer more job opportunities due to their size, but those who have moved here recently say OKC seems to offer a growing economy that has been hard to find in other cities that are still recovering from the recession several years ago.

“When I looked at Oklahoma City, I saw a positive vibe and growth that we were not hearing in Chicago or even New York with the depressed economy,” Baitz said. “We said, ‘Let’s do it,’ and we decided to give Oklahoma City a shot.”


Tech hubs

As technology jobs continue to grow across the country, traditional tech hubs like Seattle and San Francisco have seen steady growth since 2000.

But small inland cities like Raleigh, North Carolina; Nashville, Tennessee; Salt Lake City; and Indianapolis have each seen double-digit growth in technology jobs during that same time period, according to research done by Mark Schill, vice president for research at Praxis Strategy Group.

Schill also reported that OKC ranked 44th in the nation as a tech hub when counting total jobs. Tech-related job growth here since 2000 has been fairly flat, Schill reported, but growth of STEM-related jobs — those related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics — posted a local growth rate of 15.5 percent.

OKC might not be a top-tier city for technology companies, but there are more opportunities locally than just a decade ago.

“Ten years ago, there was one tech hub, and that was Silicon Valley,” said Danny Maloney, co-founder of tech company Tailwind, which is based in Oklahoma City. “New York, Boulder, Seattle, Austin, the cities we consider tech hubs today, they weren’t even on the map. But you could easily argue that today, there are 15 to 20 tech hubs across the country.”

Maloney co-founded Tailwind a few years ago in OKC and said there was an opportunity to build an innovative company in America’s heartland, despite being thousands of miles away from the coasts, which are home to more clients and capital.

And even though Maloney’s company eventually opened a second office in New York, he said OKC proved to be a great place to launch a technology startup.

“Obviously, cost of living is a lot lower here,” Maloney said. “There is no way we could have bootstrapped the company in the way that we did in a more expensive market like New York. My rent alone in New York was more expensive than my entire monthly expenses in Oklahoma City.”

Advances in shipping and cloud-based computing have opened the door to tech startups throughout middle America, and a cheaper cost of living has even given cities like OKC an advantage over larger markets when it comes to attracting employees.

“Rising rents and the difficulty of securing a mortgage on the coasts have proved a boon to inland cities that offer the middle class a firmer footing and an easier life,” wrote Shaila Dewan in an August 2014 article for The New York Times. “In the eternal competition among urban centers, the shift has produced some new winners.”

Seattle vs. OKC

Seattle and Oklahoma City highlight the shrinking gap between large and small cities. In recent years, sports teams and aerospace jobs have migrated here from Seattle in a manner that could have been unimaginable just a decade ago.

“Seriously, what’s really sticking in my craw about Oklahoma City is they seem savvier than we are,” wrote Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat in May.

Westneat’s column referred to Seattle’s disdain for OKC, which wooed away the Oklahoma City Thunder — formerly the Seattle Supersonics — into a new market and a new era of success. But Westneat also highlighted this year’s announced relocation of 900 engineering jobs at Boeing from Seattle to OKC.

The migration of a sports team and hundreds of jobs does not necessarily catapult the city to the same cultural status as Seattle. But those who follow urban affairs say the gap between large and small cities like Seattle and OKC is shrinking.

Room to grow

Part of Oklahoma City’s recent renaissance has included the arrival of dozens of new restaurants, many of which have elevated the local culinary scene.

But Baitz, who most recently lived in Chicago, says there is still room to grow.

“I heard someone ask, ‘How many more restaurants could we have?’” Baitz said. “I said, ‘Are you kidding? We could have dozens more. We can get better, but it’s definitely 10 times better than it used to be.”

Maloney said the opening of a New York office was partially to elevate Tailwind’s status with technology investors.

“There are some who won’t consider you without that New York address,” Maloney said. “Once investors know we have an office in one of the larger tech hubs, it makes it more likely for them to consider us for investment.”

Maloney also said the New York office gives Tailwind access to the talent pool in New York, which is larger than it is here. But the competition for talent is less in OKC, which gives each market its own advantage.

“It’s been easier and almost more natural building up the Tailwind brand locally,” Maloney said. “It’s been very easy to brand Tailwind in Oklahoma City as the type of company people want to work for. We get a lot of the top talent locally.”

Baitz agreed that the less competitive market of Oklahoma City is an advantage for employees.

“Professionally, there is a lot more opportunity here than in bigger cities,” Baitz said. “If you’re ambitious here, it’s easier to get ahead.”

Print headline: Comeback city, The playing field has leveled as more businesses and young professionals return to OKC.

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