Oklahoma City defies recession

Published: Wednesday, August 12, 2009 7:00 am By: Dennis Cauchon
of the Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association of Oklahoma.

Retooling a factory
The city's economic good fortune has been remarkable - even in failure.

Oklahoma City tried to become a hub for manufacturing airplanes, expanding on the aerospace industry that surrounds the Air Force base, says Mayor Mick Cornett, a Republican. "Then comes the recession. People don't buy new planes. They repair what they've got. Oklahoma City does repair and overhaul. Voilą! Better be lucky than smart," he says.

Nothing illustrates Oklahoma City's winning streak more than the closure of the GM plant. Dozens of vacant auto plants remain silent in American towns, and this plant could have been the same had it not been located so close to the state's largest employer at one location, Tinker Air Force Base.

If the plant was miles away, the military would've had little interest, says Air Force Col. Randall Burke. Next-door was a different story: "It was very convenient."

Voters agreed to pay $55 million for the GM property and lease it to the military. The military is investing about $100 million over five years to convert the plant. "We're hiring right now," Burke says.

Tinker Aerospace Complex will have 500 new workers by the end of September, mostly aerospace engine specialists, Burke says. About 2,000 will work there by 2014. Tinker maintains B-1 and B-52 bombers, KC-135 refueling tankers and E-3 (AWACS) surveillance planes.

Despite its opportunity, Oklahoma City has not drawn a flood of job seekers.

"It's a better place to live than I thought," says Mason Loomis, who left a hotel job in Dearborn, Mich., for one in Oklahoma City.

Cornett says taxpayer-financed improvements started after United Airlines rejected the city as a maintenance hub. The airline told city officials that Indianapolis won because of superior quality of life.

"We got the message," Cornett says. "United told us they couldn't see employees living here. We tried to fix that."

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