Five years ago, Oklahoma City was named one of the fattest cities in America. Today, it’s one of the fittest and looks to stay that way. Not only have residents lost tons of cumulative weight, they also joined forces with business interests to raise taxes to fund $917 million worth of public improvements aimed at advancing community health, fitness, and quality of life.
It all started when Mayor Mick Cornett realized he was obese. At 5-foot-9 and nearly 220 pounds, he figured if he needed to shed some excess baggage, others probably did, too. “We were just in denial, pretending that if we ignore obesity it’ll go away on its own,” he says.
Cornett tried to get healthy, shedding a pound a week for 40 weeks. Then, on New Year’s Eve in 2007, he took his mission public, calling a metaphorically freighted meeting at the city zoo. “I stood in front of the elephant cages and said, ‘This city is going on a diet. We are going to lose a million pounds.’ ” Rather than just set civic priorities, Cornett, a Republican, chose to go public with his own struggles, becoming a poster boy for the cause.
He set up an easy-to-remember website, thiscityisgoingonadiet.com, as a clearinghouse for diet and exercise info. To help everyone stay motivated and united, the site featured a group weight-loss counter; users who registered could track their progress, adding their losses to an overall tally. More than 47,700 people signed up, and many of them visited the site daily. That’s about one-third of the city’s estimated obese population, with perhaps tens of thousands more participating privately.
Cornett had no idea if losing a million pounds was doable. “When we announced it, I hadn’t really done the math to figure out how realistic it was. It just sounded like a big number that we could use to draw attention,” he says. A former broadcaster, he timed his announcement for the holidays when there would be little other news competing for attention. Soon he was appearing on the talk-show circuit, including The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Total cost to the city: nothing. As his own unpaid spokesman, Cornett encouraged local restaurants and gyms to freely co-opt the message, offering low-cal menu choices or discounts tied into the campaign.
Still, the design of Oklahoma City itself posed a problem. Like many places, it was built for car commuting and traffic efficiency: lots of wide streets, but few places for people to stop and actually do something active.
In mid-2009 the mayor began polling citizens for thoughts on how to redesign the city. Much of his newly active constituency favored making the place more walkable. Cornett drew up a plan and, in December 2009, with the weight-loss tally near 500,000 lbs. and climbing, held a referendum that approved a 1¢ sales tax, set to expire after seven years, with a target of raising $777 million.
Some of that money is earmarked for a 70-acre downtown park and hundreds of miles of improved sidewalks and hiking and biking trails. There will also be a streetcar system, senior health and wellness centers, and a new convention center. About the same time, businesses kicked in their own support, providing an additional $140 million through loans that will be paid back through boosted tax revenue and property taxes, to help make downtown streets more pedestrian-friendly and add bike lanes, public art, and a revamped botanical garden with a children’s play area, dog park, and ice skating rink. “The culture of the community has shifted,” Cornett says. “It made perfect sense.”
In January 2012, Oklahoma City reached the million-pound mark. Today, the website draws fewer than 5,000 visitors a month, possibly because repeat users no longer need the coaching. More than a dozen cities have come calling, hoping to emulate Cornett’s success. Oklahoma City has the strongest economy of any major metro area in the country with just 4.5 percent unemployment. The mayor says he envisions better health, especially with an increasingly health-focused streetscape, as a foundation for more growth. “Jobs follow people. People don’t follow jobs,” says Cornett, noting that low health-care costs and absentee rates will be a lure for businesses. Cornett is serving his third term and has had all of his suits taken in—permanently.