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A Safe and Healthy Civic Conversation for Thanksgiving Dinner

So we're all going to agree not to discuss politics when the family gets together. And Adele can't keep the peace forever. So let's dream a bit on this Thanksgiving day.

The City of Oklahoma City is asking residents to respond to a survey on ideas for the next bond issue to be presented to voters (likely in 2017). Past bond issues provided us with new fire and police stations, libraries, sidewalks, roads, bridges and trails. 

It seems as if just about every road that can be widened to four or more lanes has either been done through past bond issues or are funded and awaiting to be done. So maybe it's time to quit spending so much of our bond issues (which do not raise taxes) on widening and building new roads. Certainly money will be spent fixing older streets and bridges. But a shift in emphasis away from building new lane miles could allow for a significant opportunity to create an Oklahoma City we want and dream of, instead of simply encouraging sprawl on remaining agricultural land on the outskirts of town.

Some traditional projects will continue to be popular with the next bond issue - parks, fire and police stations. But let's give some serious consideration to needs in our city that for way too long were overlooked and neglected.

Sidewalks built as part of MAPS 3 have already made a difference in our city, especially in struggling areas where not every resident has access to a car. Sidewalks encourage walking. They provide a way for our community to enjoy a healthier lifestyle and for opportunities to connect. 

I remember when streetscapes were seen as a waste of money, a radical approach to planning that even threatened the job of the planning director when these projects were first introduced in the mid-1990s. We now know streetscapes work. They create a sense of place. Without the initial investment in new sidewalks, plazas, street furniture and parking, would the Plaza District be a success story today? And without the Plaza District revival, would we be seeing the revival of adjoining Gatewood and Classen-10-Penn?

I personally would love to see a streetscape along the 2000 block of N May Avenue, in the SW 29th corridor, along Martin Luther King at NE 23, and my favorite unrealized opportunity - the old town of Britton along Britton Road between Western Avenue and Classen Boulevard. I love this area - it has a lot of potential. Brianna Bailey did a good story about Britton earlier this year.

We need to create more opportunities for our struggling urban core. Is there an opportunity to team up under-used Oklahoma City high schools with Oklahoma City Community College to provide a shot at higher education within walking distance of those who need an easier path to a good future? Could we change outcomes with  a community college branch at Northeast High School?

A new branch is being built now with tax increment financing in Capitol Hill. It's a brilliant move. We need more of this. Add a community college branch at Northeast High School. Add another branch to help revive that wonderful Britton corridor at Western Avenue. Bring higher education to those who need it most.

Oklahoma City created many of its own problems over decades of focusing its bond spending on cars. We are a community in which those who can not afford a car are denied, through lack of access, the opportunities the rest of us take for granted. When we see rage on the streets of other communities, let's do more than thank God it's not happening. We are foolish to think the same triggers do not exist in Oklahoma City. 

It's still amazing to me that we only recently brought back evening bus service. Our public transit was neglected for decades and I am thankful our city has finally started trying to address this great gap in city services. An ongoing discussion along leaders in Oklahoma City and surrounding communities envisions creating a regional transit authority. Maybe it will bring a rail based system along key corridors. Hopefully it will also include some bus rapid transit, which creates efficient corridors with dedicated lanes. This one is actually pretty easy - Western Avenue, NW 63, SW 29 and SW 89 would be great places to get started.

It's time to accept that neither the federal government or state government is going to come up with answers for what is a growing issue with those amongst us who are suffering with addiction and mental health issues. Jaclyn Cosgrove has been sharing a heart breaking series of stories looking at how our state deals with those battling mental health and addiction by simply throwing them in jail. We are nothing as a community if we don't ask ourselves if we can't do better. A city that creates wellness centers for its senior citizens can certainly create treatment  centers for our hurting fellow men and women. 

Economic development made an appearance on the last bond issue. I won't be surprised if it is proposed again. But can we do more with this limited money than simply assisting in the creation of new jobs? Can we encourage smart, well designed affordable housing in areas where jobs are going unfilled because of lack of proximity to those who can't afford transportation and existing housing? Can we encourage apprenticeship opportunities in various trades that do not require higher education? 

I am very thankful on this Thanksgiving Day that I grew up in a good home with access to a good education and a chance to pursue a profession I truly enjoy. And I very thankful that our city's leadership is asking our input on how to best direct the future of our community. It's time to chat about our hopes, our dreams, and what better time to do so than during our Thanksgiving dinners this afternoon?

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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 ›