By Joy Hampton
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — Businessman Mike Fowler promised to lead Norman forward during his inaugural speech as the incoming Norman Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors chairman this year.
Months before that declaration, however, Fowler and a group of Norman business leaders and stakeholders began engaging in a series of conversations about a quality-of-life initiative that would enhance the amenities already available in the city.
Bankers, lawyers, council members, youth sports association representatives and educators are among those who have been involved in the conversation as a plan has slowly taken shape. Their mantra could be paraphrased as “We can’t depend on the university for everything.”
While no one, least of all Norman’s civic and elected leaders, would deny the huge impact the University of Oklahoma has in drawing people and jobs to Norman, they say the time has come for the city to step up with a plan that will serve a broad range of residents and their needs.
Fowler is quick to disclaim credit for the Norman Forward plan, but the CEO of Fowler Auto Group has been rumored to be a driving force behind the grassroots movement over the last several months.
Fowler’s father, Bill, founded the family business in 1973. The family has been heavily involved in community affairs over the decades, including third-generation Jonathan Fowler, vice president of operations.
Jonathan is well known for his community involvement and support of the arts. That type of generational family involvement is not unique to Norman’s enduring business community, and the voice of those civic leaders could produce powerful momentum for a major quality of life proposal.
The devil’s in the details: While Norman Forward publicly launched this week, taking its website live and sending out mass emails, no plans for the quality-of-life initiative have been finalized. On the contrary, the real conversation is just beginning.
What Fowler and others involved in the process have learned so far include several key points:
· New main branch and east side branch libraries top the list as most desirable amenities for Norman’s immediate future.
· People are emotionally attached to Reaves Park and the Westwood pool. Residents have generational memories in those locations and want those sites to remain a part of Norman’s future.
· Most people prefer sales tax funding over increases in ad valorem (property) taxes.
The broadest stretch of the plan includes park improvements, an aquatic center, renovations to Griffin Park Soccer Fields, completion of Ruby Grant and Saxon parks, more and better sports fields, including baseball, softball and football, a basketball facility, an indoor multipurpose center, a senior citizen center and walking, running and cycling trails.
“If you’re going to do a big project and bond it, it’s a good time to do it right now,” Fowler said. “The library is on the first phase because it’s been on the table for a long time.”
Whether the bond is based on property taxes or sales tax, interest rates on bonds remain at an all-time low, and city stakeholders think it’s time to cash in on the opportunity.
The group is ambitiously hoping for an April vote, and the items will roll out in phases. Whether the funding also will roll out in phases with voter approval at each step or be voted on in a single large package has not been determined.
Part of the holdup could be identifying and securing land for the sports fields and aquatics center.
“There are several proposed ideas of locations,” Fowler said. “There are no confirmed location sites for the whole piece of the wellness and sports complex.”
As the dialogue continues in the public forum, residents’ feedback will allow the Norman City Council to shape a package that makes sense for Norman.
“I believe that Norman is ready to tackle some of the important quality-of-life projects which our citizens desire, and though I have not been involved in developing this particular proposal, I appreciate the steps taken by the Norman Forward leaders,” Mayor Cindy Rosenthal said.
Learning from past mistakes: Rosenthal said the list of desirable quality-of-life projects is long and goes beyond those identified by Norman Forward.
“Fortunately, many of the projects being proposed by Norman Forward come from previous city planning efforts or, for example, the parks master plan and the greenways master plan, so we have a good sense of the community’s priorities,” Rosenthal said. “We are also currently updating the library master plan to meet the needs of a growing community and changing technology.”
The city contracted Jeffrey Scherer of MSR Design to update the library plans. A library proposal in 2008 did not garner enough support to move forward, despite that early indications had showed a strong community base of support for the proposal. At that time, no specific land had been identified or secured as a site for the new library.
“We have been working since 2008 to address the concerns we heard when the plan for a new library narrowly failed,” Pioneer Library System Executive Director Anne Masters said. “We believe the new plan with identified sites and services in east and west Norman, as well as downtown Norman will be embraced by the community.”
Since 2008, the city has obtained land at the site of the former Rhodes granary at Acres Street and James Garner Avenue across from Andrews Park for the new main library. That location is adjacent to Legacy Trail, connecting the site to Campus Corner and eventually all of the way west to Legacy Park and beyond, allowing walkers and cyclists safe passage to the central location.
“If the response to the new Norman Public Library West is any indication, the citizens of Norman will welcome the new public spaces Norman Forward is proposing, including a new downtown library and an east library,” Masters said. “I appreciate Norman Forward’s efforts to bring these worthwhile projects to the attention of the city council and look forward to the council’s response to the proposed city improvements.”
The east satellite library branch will be located on land adjacent to Fire Station No. 9, at 3001 E. Alameda St., east of 24th Avenue Southeast. No. 9 is the newest fire station in Norman, and the land will allow for an eastside library branch and community center. Adding an eastside branch will complete the Library Master Plan.
“The council will be challenged to develop a package that has broad-based support and meets the highest priority community desires, but I look forward to engaging our citizens in the process,” Rosenthal said. “If we are to be successful in gaining voter approval, we need to anticipate and answer all of the key questions that our citizens will raise.”
A series of public meetings will allow Norman residents to speak with the project architects, Scherer and Matt Kruntorad, on Sept. 7 and Sept. 8. Residents can give feedback on their preferences for library services.
“It is important to remind the community that the city of Norman provides and maintains the library facilities that serve Norman, while Pioneer operates them,” Masters said.
Information gathered from these meetings will be considered as the plans are further developed. The final recommendations will be presented to the community Oct. 5 and 6.
“The Norman library is heavily used while under-resourced,” said Anders Dahlgren, library planning consultant. “The library responds well to community interests and demands with the resources at hand, but there is clear evidence that additional resources (and the space to house those additional resources) could be well used.”
Those sentiments were voiced time and again by an anecdotal survey taken by the Transcript during video recordings of library patrons. See the video online at normantranscript.com.
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