Bethany’s elected leaders and civic leaders are engaged in discussions about how to revitalize the NW 23rd Street corridor that runs through their small municipality in northwest Oklahoma County.
For much of the past few decades, Bethany’s NW 23rd Street corridor has been a place where only the locals go, with grocery stores, open-air shopping malls, gas stations, medical offices and a school. There’s little to brag about with vacant commercial buildings falling into disrepair and a lack of upkeep and appearance.
The number of locals who venture out of Bethany, taking their dollars elsewhere for dining, shopping and family-friendly entertainment, is notable. It is a sore subject among Bethany residents, who otherwise enjoy small-town living in Oklahoma’s largest metropolitan area.
When KP Westmoreland became mayor of Bethany last year, he arrived at City Hall committed to revitalizing the city’s distressed commercial corridors, with a priority on NW 23rd Street. With more than 50 percent of Bethany sales tax coming from businesses along NW 23rd Street, Westmoreland got to work speaking with council members about what could be done.
What had been done before came a decade earlier, when Bethany City Council endorsed a plan to paint blue lines on the streets to remind residents they had entered or left Bethany and to spend their dollars in the municipality.
These days, the border between Oklahoma City and Bethany serves as an unofficial marker separating progress and no progress.
Five months into his term, Westmoreland launched his economic vision publicly when a crowd of 50 people arrived at Western Oaks Tower, the tallest building in the 5.2 square-mile municipality in northwest Oklahoma County. On the top floor, where the well-known Captain’s Table restaurant once operated, Westmoreland delivered a motivational speech on what was possible in Bethany, asking the crowd to look out the floor-to-ceiling windows onto NW 23rd Street.
“Don’t look at what it is; look at what it could be,” Westmoreland recalled telling the crowd in July. “I tried to cast hope for the future of revitalizing this area. Imagine families walking along the sidewalks. Imagine visitors going into restaurants and stores. I really pushed that revitalization was possible on 23rd Street in Bethany.”
The message was well received as it kicked off Bethany Vision 23, in which business and community leaders — sometimes 30-40 people — met to discuss what was missing along NW 23rd Street, what could be done and how to turn the commercial corridor into its own unique district, attracting locals but also bringing visitors to Bethany.
“I don’t know how many flip charts full of notes we’ve captured,” said Jeff Knapp, Bethany’s vice mayor who represents the NW 23rd Street corridor area on the council. “The mayor cast the vision. We have positive momentum with people coming together, and we are getting community support. We are doing this not just for the businesses but also for the citizens. That pride in community is coming back.”
To transform a commercial corridor into a destination with its own unique brand takes work. In the last nine months, Bethany leaders, through Bethany Vision 23, have shown their willingness to commit to the effort.
Olde Orchard Restaurant owner Amy Conrady Franklin is one of many business owners along NW 23rd Street to attend the meetings. While the restaurant has maintained a steady stream of customers since 1974, looking out its windows, it’s easy to spot vacancies, especially in Western Oaks Tower, currently for sale.
“It’s taken a toll on the area,” Conrady Franklin said. “It’s time for the rejuvenation. It’s going to happen.”
Conrady Franklin sees positive signs, like high school friends returning to the area and buying homes in neighborhoods near NW 23rd Street. She sees an advantage for shoppers and businesses with the city’s sales tax rate. When combined with the state rate, Bethany’s sales tax rate is 8.5 percent. That rate is lower than neighboring Oklahoma City, which holds a sales tax rate of 8.625 percent in Oklahoma County and 8.975 percent in Canadian County.
“Bethany is a livable community,” Franklin said, listing amenities like a short commute to OKC’s downtown, the airport and Lake Overholser.
The city is also home to two colleges, a strong public school system, parks and one of the top libraries in the Metropolitan Library System.
Jason Sargent is the owner of Go Print USA, a sign and print shop that moved to Bethany’s Cooper Plaza 14 months ago. Sargent said there is healthy foot traffic along NW 23rd Street for businesses.
At Bethany Vision 23 meetings, leaders discuss the connectivity with streets and sidewalks, beautification efforts, desired district character, ways to attract people and how to foster social activities and events.
The next step is recruiting new businesses to the corridor, Sargent said.
“Bringing in new businesses to be that second wave of excitement,” Sargent said of the next steps. “We are starting to see that. A couple of people are interested in starting businesses and starting them on 23rd Street.”
Oklahoma City’s Windsor District, where stakeholders committed to revitalizing efforts over the last 17 years along OKC’s portion of the 23rd Street corridor, has been instrumental in motivating Bethany leaders. Last October, Bethany Vision 23 invited Windsor pioneers, which included Oklahoma City Councilman Larry McAtee, to a meeting to share their revitalization story. Among the many pieces of advice, Westmoreland remembers being told to “find good leaders and get out of their way.”
“Essentially, I’ve taken that advice,” Westmoreland said. “We have this group; now let’s try to get out of their way. We don’t want to slow them down.”
The City of Bethany contributes greatly to the effort. In its Comprehensive Plan 2030, city staff identified the NW 23rd Street corridor as a top city asset and said it “should be nurtured for future development to ensure existing revenue continues to grow.” The plan identifies challenges such as street infrastructure with the scarcity of sidewalks attributing to a lack of walkability in the area as well as opportunities like affordable commercial property.
Westmoreland envisions the city investing in a streetscape project leading to the installation of sidewalks, black lampposts and district markers. The city’s fiscal year 2019 budget is the council’s first chance to designate funding toward the revitalization efforts, and Westmoreland explained there will be some funding earmarked for street improvements along NW 23rd Street.
Through Bethany Economic Development Authority, the city is contracting with Center for Economic Development Law, an Oklahoma City-based firm that has worked closely with OKC and other cities on redevelopment and revitalization projects.
City and business leaders acknowledge their efforts have produced little to show at this point. There are many signs of progress, Westmoreland said, like what he referred to as a “serious buyer” eyeing the Western Oaks Tower.
While leaders acknowledge all good things take time, they don’t want revitalization efforts that take decades.
“You can cast a vision, but you have to have people who want to make it a reality,” Westmoreland said. “One man can’t do it all. A couple of council members can’t accomplish a whole lot. It takes the business owners who show up every day, unlocking their doors and providing a service to this community. The fact that they’ve come together, I believe, is what’s going to make it a success.”