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Federal Relief Aid Still Helping Rebuild Downtown OKC 15 Years Later

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After the Murrah bombing, Congress approved a $54 million relief package to help repair Oklahoma City. After the Murrah bombing, Congress approved a $54 million relief package to help repair Oklahoma City.
More than $40 million in federal grants was allocated to property owners as part of the Murrah District Revitalization Program to help rebuild and repair damage after the bombing. More than $40 million in federal grants was allocated to property owners as part of the Murrah District Revitalization Program to help rebuild and repair damage after the bombing.
About $10 million of the money from Congress went into a low-interest loan program to spur the sort of development downtown, including Automobile Alley and the entire Murrah district. About $10 million of the money from Congress went into a low-interest loan program to spur the sort of development downtown, including Automobile Alley and the entire Murrah district.

By Alex Cameron, Oklahoma Impact Team

OKLAHOMA CITY -- As much as Oklahomans are prone to credit resilience, faith, and the Oklahoma standard for bringing about the quick recovery of Oklahoma City after the bombing of the Murrah federal building, there was another factor that tends to be overlooked: aid from Washington.

A sympathetic Congress approved a relief package that totaled, cumulatively $54 million, and, while that amount may seem paltry compared to today's billion dollar bailouts, it proved a very significant sum at a time when the city needed it.

Timothy McVeigh's two-ton fertilizer bomb did damage to more than 300 buildings downtown, including the historic First United Methodist Church at Fourth and Robinson.

"Pretty much total devastation," said Laura Alfonzo, a 28-year member of the church. "I mean, all of the glass windows in the building, all the way around, were destroyed."

Alfonzo is on the church staff, as she was in 1995. She said she remembered the initial shock of learning the building had been badly damaged but recalled how quickly shock turned to resolve.

"Within a week, we had a banner across our door that said 'our God reigns and we will remain,'" Alfonzo said. "So there was never even a thought that we would leave this place -- it was just, how were we gonna get back here?"

The way soon become clear.

In January, 1996, Oklahoma City received an initial allocation of $39 million from Washington. The majority of the funding was to be given out in the form of direct grants to bomb-damaged properties in what became known as the Murrah District: an area bordered by NW Classen, 13th Street, I-235, and Robert S. Kerr.

Russell Claus, now Oklahoma City's planning director, was selected to manage the Murrah District Revitalization Program, and, thus, oversaw the disbursement of the money.

"We had to determine [applicants'] eligibility," Claus explained. "So they had to submit an application that explained how they were affected and what the extent of their bomb damage repairs were."

Claus said they received approximately 260 applications for damage repair grants; they approved funds for just under 200 of those applications.

First United Methodist Church got one of the largest grants -- $2.1 million -- and, with the help of insurance money and private donations, was able to rebuild and reopen three years later.

"So truly, what the devil intended for evil, God has turned for good," said FirstChurch Executive Pastor Kirk Norman. "And we have a beautiful 92,000 square foot structure here that is in ministry every day of the week."

"Good things always come from bad," said developer Steve Mason, "and I think that the bombing helped spark and accelerate what's happening here."

Mason is talking about the commercial growth taking place in the subsection of the Murrah District known as Automobile Alley, just east of the church. He said he's developing several properties in the area of N. Broadway and 10th street, one of which, he said, has benefited from the federal funding in two ways.

"Some of the Murrah grants were used to fix the roof and broken windows, to stabilize the building," Mason said. "Then when I came along, I took advantage of the Murrah revolving loan fund to improve the building."

When Mason came along, about five years ago, the program's grant money was already long gone, but an associated low-interest loan program was still operating. About $10 million of the money from Congress went into the program to spur just the sort of commercial activity that is now taking place throughout the district.

"We thought that was as important as doing the bomb damage repair because we had a lot of businesses that were displaced, or businesses that closed, and we wanted to at least replace those [and get] back to where we were prior to the bombing," Claus said.

The Murrah fund has paid out about $16 million in loans to date and will continue indefinitely, as borrowers pay back into the fund.

"Basically a tree was planted [and] many people will use the same dollars over and over and over," Mason said.

Mason himself has borrowed $1 million, which he's investing along with $5 million in private funds in two different properties. With the program's lending terms as they are (.375% interest on 30% of the loan amount), Mason said he feels confident he's making a good investment.

Officials with the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce weren't able to estimate what the value of the original $54 million  investment by Congress would be today. They can only say that it has paid huge dividends and sped up the recovery and redevelopment of the Murrah district in a way that could not have been done without it.

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