Norman entertainment district
University of Oklahoma President Joe Harroz speaks during an announcement of a massive entertainment district proposal at the Norman Economic Development Coalition breakfast Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2023. (Gaylord News)

A $1 billion entertainment district could soon replace the sunflower fields between Max Westheimer Airport and Interstate 35 if the stars align for “Team Norman.”

A partnership between three civic organizations, city and county governments and the University of Oklahoma, Team Norman unveiled plans Wednesday for an 8,000-seat arena, a hotel, hundreds of housing units and a variety of shops, restaurants, bars and offices.

If the plan — brokered by the Norman Economic Development Coalition, the University of Oklahoma, the City of Norman, Cleveland County, the Norman Chamber of Commerce, VisitNorman and the local business community — goes through, OU would become the arena’s anchor tenant and would be expected to sign a multi-year lease.

Gaylord NewsThis story was reported by Gaylord News, a Washington reporting project of the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Oklahoma.

The university’s use of the new arena, containing 2,500 fewer seats than the current 48-year-old Lloyd Noble Center, would move OU gymnastics and basketball to a high-traffic locale with faster access for patrons from the Oklahoma City metro area. The arena would also be utilized for concerts, business expos, local graduations, rodeos and more, according to a press release.

“Anyone that thinks that our strategic plan can execute itself by OU alone is wrong. It will fail,” OU President Joseph Harroz Jr. said during a breakfast kickoff Wednesday. “It has to be a part of a larger plan, and that’s what Team Norman is all about.”

The proposed development is expected to be funded in an 80/20 split between private and public funding. None of the public funding for the project is expected to come from the city or county general funds, leaders said.

Norman Mayor Larry Heikkila said public funding for the proposed development will have to be achieved through either citywide approval of a general obligation bond or City Council approval of a revenue bond or tax increment financing district. General obligation bonds are loans backed by the full faith and credit of the bonding entity, while revenue bonds are loans backed by pledged revenues from the specific project at hand.

“I’ve got a pretty good idea what I want to do, but let’s see what council wants to do. Let’s see what everybody else wants to do,” Heikkila said. “That’s been the beauty of this whole thing. We may have an idea, but we’re working together to get that done.”

The new plan mirrors one proposed in 2017 by the OU Foundation, which suggested using University North Park’s TIF district to build the multi-purpose arena. That plan ran into resistance from the Norman City Council and others, ultimately causing the foundation to withdraw its proposal a year later.

Former city councilman and unsuccessful 2022 mayoral candidate Bob Thompson, who was among those who raised questions about the plan four years ago, said he hopes the Norman City Council will opt for a general obligation bond and a public vote so citizens can “have their say.”

“I think it becomes a matter of the integrity of our taxing jurisdictions, whether it’s the county commissioners or the City Council, to include the public in that decision and give the public the opportunity to vote on it,” Thompson said. “If we want to do something like that with a general obligation bond, then we will put that to a vote of the people, and if the people approve it, we go forward. It’s an excellent mechanism for doing things that are otherwise out of the ordinary.”

A second bite at the apple

Located in the heart of the proposed development space, IMMY, an international medical manufacturing company based in Norman just east of the proposed development, is looking forward to the increased traffic the effort could bring.

“As you can see driving up, we’re a little bit off to ourselves right now,” said Keegan Nees, IMMY marketing manager. “We’d like for other things to come into this area and help develop it and grow it a little bit more.”

Harroz made it clear the university intends to do its part to make sure the new entertainment district succeeds.

“Every one of us in this room knows that we have not been acting like a team for the city of Norman over the last decade and a half,” he said. “There is so much that our city and our county have to offer, and the potential has not been realized. We have to look in the mirror, and we did.”

With less than a year until OU’s athletic programs join the Southeastern Conference, many have called for renovations to university facilities and infrastructure, as well as improvements to the fan experience. For decades, OU’s basketball teams have played in the Lloyd Noble Center, an 11,500-seat cavernous venue on the south side of Norman. The proposed new arena would have about 8,000 seats and would be on the north side of town, allowing easier access for OU fans from the Oklahoma City metro area and a higher likelihood of filling the stands for games.

“This is something that benefits our kids, our grandkids, and generations to come,” Harroz said. “As we go out and as we are reaching new heights at OU, the only way to get to the next level is to be able to attract those students that want more.”

(Editor’s note: Gaylord News reporters Zack Wright and Nate Pletcher contributed to this report.)