'Pro-growth Norman': Mayor relays vision to council

·6 min read

Jul. 24—Ready or not, Norman is on track to grow, and its mayor and council hope to figure out how to guide the forecasted population hike they feel certain is on the horizon.

During the council's retreat Saturday, they and staff discussed the inevitable growth to follow the University of Oklahoma Athletics' decision to enter the Southeastern Conference (SEC) by 2025.

City Manager Darrel Pyle was optimistic that the city's population will increase and so will tourism.

"What we're hearing from cities with universities that have moved to the SEC, what they're telling us is, 'Your student population is going to jump,'" Pyle said. "Your fans, spectator population is absolutely going to jump. Missouri, it was in declining enrollment and local economy, but when they went into the SEC they saw an immediate jump in enrollment and immediate positive impact on the local economy."

Pyle did not present statistics on that potential growth, but Ward 7 Stephen Holman noted Norman's population growth exceeded that of others in the metro like Moore and Edmond, according to the 2020 census data report.

"We're at a point where we're having to redefine what we have to be to service those people, look good to the people coming in from Atlanta or Augusta or wherever they're coming from," Mayor Larry Heikkila said. "Not everybody goes to the football game. About a third go to the game, so there's two thirds of them that need to be spending their money in Norman."

Heikkila forecasted his vision for the future: Guide the growth with business districts, tax incentives, zoning and feedback from residents.

"What is Norman?" he asked. "What does that mean and what are we going to do to improve Norman?"

Guiding growth

As the council heard Heikkila promote his "pro-growth vision" for the city, including an arena in University North Park, discussion turned to outlying goals related to growth, and the possibility of a deep dive into the minds of residents, ward by ward.

Ward 8 Matt Peacock asked the council to consider participating in a two-year program called "community action lab" conducted by Strong Towns. The nonprofit organization helps cities reimagine the post-war "pattern of suburban development" into cities which are "financially strong and resilient," the website reads.

"Basically all the things that we've been talking about, neighborhood engagement and planning for the future, and making sure we do things with a soft touch, the right way, the responsible way — this is the mechanism to accomplish that from where we're at," Peacock said.

The price tag is $150-$175,000, he said.

"So, it's not cheap, but it's an investment into ourselves," Peacock said.

Only five cities will be selected, but Peacock noted Strong Towns officials think Norman is a "good fit" for the study.

Heikkila led the discussion into the possibility of using business improvement districts (BID) and tax increment finance districts (TIF), or other incentives to spur controlled growth.

Ward 6 Elizabeth Foreman said she would approve an east Norman tax increment finance district.

Foreman has decried the lack of services, businesses, and recreation on the east side of her ward, but she also made it a campaign promise that she would resist unnecessary TIFs during her first election to council in 2020. At the time, a controversial TIF district in University North Park met with scorn from hundreds of residents.

Critics at the time said such tax forgiveness and infrastructure investments from cities should be relegated to blighted areas, not in areas that would likely have developed without incentivization.

"I know, I know," Foreman said and held up a hand with a laugh. "I don't like TIF's. But I would even be willing to sell my soul ... to create a TIF district on the east side. We're the closest to the campus."

No one objected to the possibility nor to the notion of creating business improvement district. BIDs encompass a defined area where businesses agree to pay a fee or tax to pay for improvements to revitalize the district.

Heikkila said he hopes to see BIDs connect the downtown area to the university campus.

"I would like to see us move towards a business improvement district that hooks Main Street BID down to a BID in Campus Corner so that we can make sure that we have enough parking and do some other things with the county to be able to do parking," Heikkila said.

Heikkila agreed with the council that the city should also focus on historic preservation amidst growth.

Transportation and traffic control

The council also discussed transportation goals that connect to foreseen population growth such as traffic congestion and micro transit.

Holman asked staff to study the best method to control traffic in the Campus Corner area.

"We don't have any kind of a plan that is specific to traffic circulation and operations around the campus — Lindsey, Jenkins, Elm — and expand it a little bit," he said. "If the SEC estimations are correct, the problem is going to get a lot worse."

The possibility of making changes to campus area streets has been met with resistance from the university, Holman said, but he urged staff to prepare for a traffic study.

Conversation turned to creating a micro transit system. The program is an on-demand service similar to rideshare companies.

Ward 1 Brandi Studley said she agreed with Ward 3 Kelly Lynn's push for micro transit as a way to cut back on the expense of large buses if the program would serve more residents and decrease pollution.

Heikkila said he was a "fan" of micro transit because it would get more cars off congested streets.

"Especially if the SEC, how much more money are we going to make off of that?" Studley said. "I'm a former Uber driver, and the rates jack up on game day. Everyone wants to be the driver in Norman during game days."

The council has discussed a micro transit pilot program for the disabled community to test the idea during previous committee and study session meetings, but Studley said the sooner, the better.

"I don't really even want to do a trial period or a pilot program," she said. "We just need to make it happen."

While the council did not have lengthy discussion on the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority's plans to build two new toll roads in Norman, staff informed them that specific master plans would have to be updated in light of the possibility.

OTA intends to build an east Norman toll road in the Lake Thunderbird Watershed and one along Indian Hills Road.

The city's comprehensive land use plan and transportation plan would have to be updated in light of potential turnpikes and projected growth, staff said.

Mindy Wood covers City Hall news and notable court cases for The Transcript. Reach her at mwood@normantranscript.com or 405-416-4420.