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First National: Dodged Bullets and Hoping for the Best

And now we hold our breath.

That’s pretty much all we can do following the closing of First National Center on Friday. The last tenants have all moved out. Café 7 is set to reopen at Century Center. The Tinderbox Cigar store is set to reopen in the Oil & Gas Building. Nancy Farha’s clothing shop is moving to northwest Oklahoma City.

And Ken’s beloved Golden Dragon? Well, good grief, this is a popular restaurant that wants to reopen downtown but hasn’t been given a shot at doing so.

Oklahoma City may have dodged even more years of neglect and uncertainty when the final deals sought by the former out-of-state owners failed to hold up in court.

Remember California investor Stephen Goodman? He at first seemed legit. He had a historic property in Cleveland he claimed to be developing. His web page listed an array of impressive projects. But a deeper dig into his web page proved it was all one big mess, with a lot of weird photos and crazy comments Goodman blamed on a disgruntled ex-employee.

When I dug into the status of the Cleveland project, I learned that nothing was happening at all with it. Goodman claimed construction was going on inside the building when locals said otherwise.

Sure enough, that project is indeed falling apart. Read this story from last week and wonder what might have happened with First National had Goodman succeeded with his attempt to buy it.

According to news reports in Cleveland, renovation never started beyond the asbestos removal, which news reports indicate was done with public assistance. The project is now in receivership.

And consider this comment by the court appointed receiver for Goodman’s property:

"Because I've dealt with Mr. Goodman and his investors and his people, and I've been open to them. And I've tried. But they're always going to execute – and they never seem to execute."

There was yet another buyer that the various parties claiming to have owned First National try to sell to, and he was the self-described “Turkish Donald Trump” - Dallas developer Mike Sarimsakci.

How many folks shuddered at just the thought of someone who thinks that is the sort of person Oklahoma City wants to gain control of its most endangered historic landmark?

Ironically, it appears that a related affiliate of Sarimsakci is trying to gain control of the Goodman property in Cleveland. You can’t make this up. Sarimsakci has had some completions when it comes to redevelopment, but my online searches indicate he has an awful lot of renderings of promised developments floating out and about. His own plans for First National never made sense to me as they would have been a very limited renovation and seemed to ignore the top to bottom gutting and rebuild needed (as was done with the Skirvin Hilton Hotel).

So what’s next for First National? We know the closing has been delayed for several months as the complexities of the property’s past ownership and title issues have been getting sorted out. This is a reflection of a local ownership group led by Gary Brooks that is actually doing the due diligence not done by an assortment of despised former out-of-state owners.

The building is in rough shape. And a closing is expected to take place within the next couple of months. Hopefully everyone is doing what they can to ensure no new complications arise and what complications remain are overcome. This is make or break time for First National The buyers have a track record of getting things done in Oklahoma City.

If this gets screwed up, First National will be in serious jeopardy. Empty, large historic buildings don’t fare well when they are left empty for long. There is no bigger challenge – or opportunity – awaiting downtown Oklahoma City. A success story will result in the property being converted into upscale apartments, a hotel and retail.

A failure will leave downtown with a disgrace – an unloved and ultimately boarded-up former jewel – in the very heart of our city.






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Steve Lackmeyer

Steve Lackmeyer is a reporter, columnist and author who started his career at The Oklahoman in 1990. Since then, he has won numerous awards for his coverage, which included the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, the city's... Read more ›