As the Myriad Botanical Gardens renovations unfold, questions are being raised about the fate of one of the centerpieces of the MAPS 3 program: the 70-acre central park.
Under a MAPS 3 timeline that has yet to receive the City Council’s stamp of approval, the $130 million park, located between what will be the future boulevard and the realigned Interstate 40 and Robinson and Hudson avenues, would be one of the last projects completed in the program.
The timeline was approved earlier in May by the convention center subcommittee. One of its members, former Mayor Kirk Humphreys, said with the Myriad Botanical Gardens renovations nearing completion, the MAPS 3 park would benefit from having more planning time. The issue of delaying the MAPS 3 park arose at the May 17 City Council meeting. The council voted 4-2 to defer for two weeks the consideration of an agenda item that would have allowed the city’s Economic Development Trust to grant management control of the gardens to the Myriad Gardens Foundation. Council members Larry McAtee and Patrick Ryan cast the two dissenting votes; Mayor Mick Cornett and council members Meg Salyer and David Greenwell were not present.
HOW DO YOUR GARDENS GROW?
While some council members favorably viewed the agreement as a model of how the city could pay for future operating costs for the park, others saw it as a possible competitor that would draw resources away from the planned park, and thus possibly place the burden of operating it almost squarely on the city.
The recent renovations to the Myriad Botanical Gardens are the result of Project 180, paid for through the Devon tax increment finance district.
“The gardens have been a wonderful asset over the years, but we all know there have been some issues: access and visibility and those types of things,” City Manager Jim Couch said. “With the Devon TIF, we were able to address those issues.”
Couch told the council that as improvements from Project 180 continued, it became apparent the city’s cost to maintain improvements would increase, so the city and the Myriad Gardens Foundation began negotiating a deal in which the group would have greater control over the gardens’ operations, but also make greater contributions to its upkeep.
Former Assistant City Manager Cathy O’Connor, now serving as president of newly formed nonprofit group Alliance for Economic Development of Oklahoma City and who negotiated the deal with the foundation, told the council that the city’s fiscal obligations would be reduced.
“Our goal is to get the city’s contribution down to a third of what the operating costs of the park are,” she said.
The renovated Myriad Botanical Gardens will have more rentable space, revenue-generating activities and amenities before the end of the year, she said.
Meanwhile, the foundation would be given authority to operate the park, promote events, charge admission to events, sell tickets, set rates and fees, operate an ice skating rink and restaurant, and enter into contracts with vendors, she said.
Jim Tolbert, chairman of the Myriad Gardens Foundation, said new foundation members will be required to make a commitment to contribute more than $20,000 to build a large endowment for future operations.
PARK QUESTION MARKS
Although the MAPS 3 park has $130 million set aside for development, the MAPS program does not make any future money available for continued sustainability. Cornett and city officials have suggested that a conservancy be set up to oversee that.
However, a large portion of downtown money going toward the Myriad Botanical Gardens may spell trouble for the MAPS 3 park, which is still in the early stages of land acquisition.
Councilman Ed Shadid questioned whether the MAPS 3 central park, also called the Core to Shore park, would remain viable under the Myriad Botanical Gardens deal.
“This is an entity which is going to have tremendous firepower in terms of the financial backers,” Shadid said. “There will be no coordination between the public running the Core to Shore park and the Myriad Gardens. Do we have two ice skating rinks that compete against each other? We have the public competing against an endowment with $10 million.”
Tolbert said the success of a conservancy for the MAPS 3 park depends on how the area around the park develops.
“Private investment and operations like the Myriad Gardens or operations like the central park are driven to a certain extent by self-interest. We’re trying to capitalize on the fact that downtown business and major corporate interests in Oklahoma City want the Myriad Gardens to be a success and to be maintained and operated at a very high level,” Tolbert said. “If we can create the same climate around the central park, I think you can develop the same kind of financing mechanism, but I think that’s dependant on the interest that can be developed in that park. I don’t think we’re competing in terms of the private resources.”
Councilman Pete White said that it could eliminate any chance of an early completion of the MAPS 3 park.
“I think this is a coup de grâce for the central park … for people of my age,” White said. “If the central park is not going to be feasible in a short period of time — and this would be one of the reasons why it’s not — I think any idea that the central park has to be completed by 2014 is down the tubes.”
Ryan said turning over the gardens to the foundation was a positive move that would give a good template for how the MAPS 3 park could operate.
Couch said no programming has been done on the MAPS 3 park, and that the issues often arise of whether there is too much focus on downtown and whether a MAPS 3 park is needed, given the success of the Myriad Botanical Gardens.
The gardens ultimately may end up shaping what types of events and amenities are at the future park, he said. “That discussion goes on quite often as we go forward. We have not programmed the park for MAPS 3,” Couch said. “We have a lot of decisions yet to be made on MAPS 3 as to what that park’s going to look like.”