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Loss of Oklahoma City United Airlines plant a mixed blessing a decade later

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ In 1991, Oklahoma City lost a United Airlines maintenance center and a promise of 7,500 jobs to Indianapolis.

More than 10 years later, only about 1,500 work at the facility and the world's second-largest airline has filed the largest bankruptcy in aviation history.

Former Oklahoma City Mayor Ron Norick said missing out on the United maintenance facility was disappointing, but he noted that it led to a long-reaching taxpayer investment in the city.

``You wouldn't have had MAPS because the United deal would have tied up that tax money,'' Norick said. ``Take away the canal, the ballpark, the Ford Center, the library. Scratch it all, and just see where we'd be.''

Even though Indianapolis won the maintenance center, United Airlines hasn't fulfilled all its promises.

Last year, officials threatened to impose fines because less than half the 7,500 positions were filled. United also had not come through on a promise of an $800 million investment in the city.

Even with its problems, University of Oklahoma economist Bob Dauffenbach said Oklahoma City would have benefited from the maintenance center.

``That would have been an investment in the state,'' said Dauffenbach, associate dean of the Michael F. Price College of Business. ``If it were not used by United Airlines, it still would have been used by some other airline. And it would have furthered the state's reputation for airline maintenance.''

Because the airline expects to continue flying and emerge from bankruptcy within 18 months, United's maintenance centers will continue to operate, Dauffenbach said.

The center hasn't created as many jobs as initially thought, but any number of high-paying maintenance jobs would be good for the city's economy, he said.

Former Gov. David Walters made gaining United's maintenance center a priority during his term and worked to create an effective incentive package.

``That process was so cumbersome that I asked my secretary of commerce to put together the most aggressive job incentive package we could pass so we wouldn't have to go back to the Legislature every time,'' he said.

The Oklahoma Quality Jobs Program was born. Since its creation in 1993, the program has funded nearly 79,000 jobs and generated more than $6 billion in new payroll, according to the state Commerce Department.

Even with the program and MAPS, Oklahoma City has still lost out on economic development projects.

The city lost a Micron Technologies Inc. chip manufacturing plant to Utah in 1995. Two years later, Micron decided to mothball the project and none of the promised 4,000 jobs were created.

In July, Corning Inc. canceled its plans in July to build a fiber optics plant in Oklahoma City. Construction on the building, which was supposed to house 800 jobs, stalled in December 2000. The metal frame is all that is standing.

``I think we've been more cautious in recruiting lately,'' said Richard Burpee, president of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce. ``We have to be aggressive, and we have to let them know the advantage of operating in the Oklahoma City area.''
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