It’s been nearly 20 years since a bomb destroyed the Murrah building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people and injuring hundreds more. As Oklahoma City prepares to look back on the bombing, one thing is clear — downtown OKC is a far different, and much better place than it was in April 1995. And it’s hard to deny the role the bombing played in the area’s resurgence.
Downtown Oklahoma City, April, 2015: The Thunder is in the arena fighting for a birth in the NBA playoffs. Bars and restaurants in Bricktown are packed along the scenic canal that feeds into the Oklahoma River, where the U.S. Olympic rowing team trains. 20 years ago, before the Oklahoma City bombing, downtown was nothing like this. There was no pro-basketball team, Bricktown was in decay, and the Oklahoma River was nothing more than muddy ditch.
“When I first moved to Oklahoma City, if people wanted to have lunch they drove out of downtown to go have lunch,” Russell Claus, who served as Oklahoma City’s planning director from just after the bombing until moving back to his native Australia earlier this year, says. “I’m probably one of the few people, unfortunately, who can say, “I owe my career to Timothy McVeigh,” in a very black way.”
By the time the bombing happened, the first Metropolitan Area Projects initiative had already been approved by voters. Better known as the MAPS program, the one-cent sales tax increase funded the construction of a new ballpark and the Bricktown canal, among other projects. But by early 1995…
“Nothing had actually happened on the ground yet,” Claus says.
Claus says it was the Oklahoma City bombing that really spurred the downtown renaissance.
“At that point in time there was no expectation that anything was going to happen. There was no willingness to make things happen, Claus says. “A lot of the area that was impacted was owned by speculative property owners. They had no intent to do anything in the short term. So, once you had the bombing it sort of kicked people into a different thought process.”
But the bombing didn’t just change attitudes; it brought in millions of dollars in federal money in the form of grants and a loan program that continues to this day.
“Because you had such a broad area affected by the bombing, and the distribution of federal funds that we received, we were able to give everything a bit of a kick start to get things going,” Claus says.
The YMCA’s office building was right across the street from the Murrah building when the bomb went off. President Mike Grady was in his office when it happened.
“My mind went immediately to — we must’ve had a boiler explosion in our building. I mean the force was pretty significant,” Grady says. “And as we came out the front door it was obvious at that point because we were looking at the Murrah building when we came out.”
The YMCA building was already outdated. Brady had been looking to sell it in the months before the bombing severely damaged the aging structure. Now, thanks in part to private donations, the downtown Y has a new campus. The restoration of the Oklahoman Building was one of the first downtown projects to be completed, and now houses YMCA’s Oklahoma City headquarters.
“Certainly the bombing forced us to have some conversations much more quickly than we were prepared to have them,” Grady says. “It forced our hand, if you will.”
Bill Mihas’ Coney Island is on the first floor of one of downtown OKC’s oldest buildings. He came from Greece in the 1960s and moved his modest hot dog restaurant to this location in the 70s. He’s seen downtown at its worst, and talks excitedly about what future construction will mean for his business.
“They’re going to build two garage[s], one behind me right here and one in the corner of Hudson. OG&E is going to make three towers on the other side of Sheridan. Devon is going to make another tower right here,” Mihas says.
The hot dog business is good for Mihas, thanks to downtown redevelopment. Just don’t ask him to give the bombing any credit for it.
“I thought the bombing was terrible and it didn’t do any good to anybody. Not to business, not to people, not to anybody,” Mihas says. “I won’t say the bombing did any good at all.”
For many, even though 20 years have passed, it’s hard to see the silver lining.