Nice views her role as a bridge builder for Ward 7
Wearing a black blazer over a sequin Oklahoma City Thunder T-shirt, Nikki Nice stood in front of her neighbors — now turned constituents — as some expressed skepticism with the city's plan to turn blighted lots into housing and businesses.
Nice, who last month was elected councilwoman for Oklahoma City's Ward 7, was hosting a mid-December town hall where more than 100 northeast residents had gathered to hear officials from the city's planning and urban renewal departments.
Nice was now a representative of the city government that many in the room had come to distrust, but she was also born and raised in the northeast and knew as well as anyone her community had come to its skepticism honestly.
“We've got to build back trust, which is why I think my job is to build bridges between the city and community,” Nice said.
Ward 7 makes up most of northeast Oklahoma City, including a once-thriving black business district — Deep Deuce — that is now home to trendy restaurants and townhomes.
The ward is also home to the current hub of the city's black community, made up of neighborhoods that have experienced decades of school closures, shuttered businesses and an era of urban renewal that tore down homes and left empty lots.
"There has been a history with urban renewal that raises some red flags," said Joyce Willis, a northeast resident and Nice supporter.
"Hopefully she will be able to bridge the community. She is young, she is intelligent."
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- Video: Nikki Nice profile
A familiar voice in the community
Nice, 38, won more than 71 percent of the vote in a November runoff election, filling the council seat vacated by John A. Pettis Jr., who resigned this year while facing felony charges for embezzlement.
Nice said she hopes to bring a new energy to the council and is focused on transparency for her constituents.
"People don't feel that the city or local government is transparent about making sure they get important information," Nice said. "I want to be open to my community. I'm going to give you the positive and I'm going to give you the negative."
Nice, who graduated from Northeast High School, grew up with a dream of becoming a sports broadcaster.
But it was helping with her church's gospel radio station that sparked an interest in broadcast journalism.
Nice graduated from Langston University with a degree in journalism and an internship at Perry Publishing & Broadcasting led to an 11-year radio career, including as a host of several programs that made her a familiar voice in the community.
But Nice said she wanted to get more involved in solving some of her community's biggest challenges, including a shortage of education opportunities, low health outcomes and an exodus of young residents who struggle to see a future in northeast Oklahoma City.
This year's run for office was Nice's first and Mayor David Holt said she has hit the ground running.
"She is very intelligent, very understanding of what the city does and what the role of a councilperson is," Holt said. "We definitely need a council member from Ward 7 who is engaged and building relationships between the city and community and I think we've got that in Nikki Nice."
Roberta Swanegan, Nice's mother, said she was surprised when her daughter decided to seek the council seat.
But she wasn't surprised her daughter was looking for a way to help others.
"Ever since she has been a little girl she has always been very compassionate," Swanegan said. “I remember one time I went to pick her up at school and a little girl had fallen and she would not leave until her parents got there because she wanted to make sure she was OK. She's always been like that.”
Fear of gentrification
Nice enters office at a time when the city is beginning to discuss a possible MAPS 4, the continuation of capital improvement projects funded through a voter-approved sales tax.
MAPS projects of the past have mostly focused on downtown, including the city's future convention center and the new streetcar line.
"With some of the previous MAPS that we have had ... the east side did feel neglected, that they didn't get their fair share," Nice said. "We have to make sure we are building that trust in our area for our residents.”
Nice said she would like to see expanded public transportation in her ward and believes MAPS 4 could be one way to achieve it.
"Whatever happens, whether it's MAPS or urban renewal or some other project, I want to represent my community and make sure they have a say," Nice said.
There are signs of economic progress in Ward 7, including along NE 23rd Street where a pizza restaurant, barber school and live music venue are in the works.
"When there is talk about redevelopment (in northeast Oklahoma City) there is that concern or that fear of those negative consequences, like gentrification," said Quintin Hughes, a partner in a future bar and cafe on NE 23rd Street.
"I believe (Nice's) role can be an advocate for existing residents, for people who like her were born and raised on the east side and want to make sure they are benefiting from progress."