Chamber, city leaders discuss infrastructure, aviation in visit to Washington, D.C.
Mar. 18—Norman city officials and business leaders recently visited the nation's capital to lobby for federal dollars for infrastructure, including road projects, and to advocate for aviation growth.
Norman Chamber of Commerce members and city leaders traveled to Washington, D.C., for their annual Fly In from March 6-8. They met with Republican senators Markwayne Mullin and James Lankford, Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore, and Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Cheyenne, for policy briefings.
This year, 28 people made the trip, said Scott Martin, chamber president and CEO.
Martin told The Transcript the delegation makes a point to engage with policymakers on matters pertaining to chamber members, local businesses, and the community.
"It's important that the (national delegation) knows what our priorities are, and if they have questions about a piece of legislation that may be working its way through the process, we want them to know that we can be a trusted resource for them," he said.
36th Avenue project delays, other infrastructure funding
Martin said a chief priority was discussing the 36th Avenue NW widening project approved by Norman voters in 2012. It's the last of nine projects included in the bond package.
"The city has stated that the final piece of that is the federal match, and so we talked to the federal delegation about that," Martin said. "Their expectation is that it would be done and frankly for the way that the northwest side of town has grown and developed in the last decade, it's really integral and important that the project gets done."
The project will expand 36th Avenue NW from Indian Hills Road to Tecumseh Road to four lanes. Director of Public Works Shawn O'Leary said the project was estimated to cost around $16.9 million in 2012, but because of inflation over the last decade, has increased to an estimated at $21.9 million.
Norman collected $5.4 million in bond funds but has been trying for years to get the 80% match from the federal government, which continues to delay the project.
"The city needs about $16.5 million in federal funds," O'Leary said.
Mayor Larry Heikkila told The Transcript if the Senate and House don't reach a budget agreement this year, it would mean Congress would need to pass a continuing resolution, which would likely further delay federal funds for Norman.
"We put the (request) into ACOG, and then they changed the calculus, saying to us that Norman gets too much of this money and little cities don't," he said.
Heikkila said that's not to say Norman is "shut out" from federal funding for projects, but that sizable match of $16.5 million isn't likely with Congress on a tight budget.
Norman leaders spoke with the delegation about discretionary funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Heikkila said they discussed meeting HUD criteria through a point system evaluation.
"If we wanted to put in a housing project, we could get the infrastructure money to put in the sewer, the water and all the rest of that kind of stuff to that housing project," he said.
Heikkila said the delegations also advocated for Noble.
"They need a sidewalk from 8th Street to 48th Street and they've been trying for 10 years to get this money to keep kids off of Cedar Lane Road when they walk from the high school to the housing areas," he said. "Cole was very interested."
Upgrades at Max Westheimer
Martin said the chamber and Norman leaders were able to highlight the need for airport funding.
Max Westheimer Airport looks to the Federal delegation for support in funding federal contract towers, runways and taxiways, and hangar development areas.
"All of these are community based," Martin said. "They go to further the overall well being of our community, and they have a direct impact on businesses ability to thrive in Norman, so it was easy for us to go and cheerlead and be supportive of those particular issues."
Chamber Chairman David Nimmo said conversations with Cole about airport expansions ahead of the move to the SEC were promising, and it's important to have strong aviation in the community.
Nimmo said the SEC move creates a need for expansion at Max Westheimer.
"SEC fans travel in large jets, and so we need a little bit longer runway to be able to handle those larger jets," he said. "We'd rather them land here than Will Rogers, because that means they'll stay in our hotels and restaurants."
Support for National Weather Center
Martin said another important discussion during the visit centered around the National Weather Center.
"The weather center is looking at expanding and opportunities for growth, and that was a topic I was able to talk with (Lucas) about," Martin said.
Lucas chairs the Science and Technology Committee in the House, which has oversight of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"He was in Norman not too long ago with some of his team, so he's intimately aware of what an asset the National Weather Center is for Norman, the state and frankly the entire nation and is championing that cause also, which is awesome," Martin said. "We really appreciate that."
Jeff Elkins covers business, living and community stories for The Transcript. Reach him at email@example.com or at @JeffElkins12 on Twitter.