Thunder in Oklahoma City

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

by Jennifer Trone

Vera Institute

NBA team owner Clayton Bennett and allied business leaders are at the forefront of criminal justice reform.

From his 31st-floor office, Clay Bennett has a bird’s eye view of the county jail. It seems to sit especially heavy on land, unlike the tower where Bennett spends his days, which rises upwards with an air of aspiration. After years of ignoring something in plain sight, hardly a day goes by in which Bennett doesn’t think about the men and women in that jail, what led them there, and how to change a system he believes wastes Oklahoma City’s most precious resource: its people.

To understand why a businessman in his late fifties who controls a successful NBA team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, and heads a financial management firm has become a champion of criminal justice reform requires understanding Oklahoma City and Bennett’s relationship to his hometown.

Since the city’s founding in 1889, business leaders have shaped it. Early on, they took the lead in spreading access to water, electricity, and other utilities. They brought in rail lines and for a time even ran the airport. Since Clay Bennett has been an active member of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, including a stint as chair, the chamber has spearheaded a succession of capital improvement projects known as MAPS, short for metropolitan area projects.

These projects range from a 20,000-seat indoor sports arena, to miles of new walking and biking trails, to the renovation of city schools. MAPS is the biggest development effort since the initial “land run” that created Oklahoma City, and it reflects the considerable influence of the chamber: These expensive projects are funded by time-limited hikes in local sales tax that voters must approve.

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