Dome deal done, but it's not popular among everyone

Monday, July 31st 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- With scant public discussion, a $20 million state Capitol dome project has been declared a done deal, drawing kudos from the captains of industry and state government. But the majority of everyday Oklahomans interviewed by The Associated Press were not so enthusiastic, citing the project's high cost. "I think it's a waste of money," said J.D. Sitton of Midwest City. He called the price tag for the project "crazy." "It would be nice, but it won't be that nice," said Sitton, a retired General Motors Corp. employee, adding that the money would be better spent on schools, roads or other state services. "I don't get the point," said Catlyn Lester, a former official with the Department of Human Services. She said she had lived in Oklahoma all her life and the Capitol never had a dome and she does not see the necessity to have one now at such a cost.

Gov. Frank Keating is a prime mover behind the project and made last week's announcement that $15 million has been raised from the private sector toward building the dome. The state is kicking in $5 million, including $4.5 million from Republican lawmakers' share of a $152 million capital improvement program authorized by the 2000 Legislature. Oklahoma City Democratic legislators pitched in with about $450,000. Keating anticipated criticism that the dome is an extravagance,but said it would serve as a symbol of "Oklahoma rising." "A statement of our poverty is the absence of a dome," the GOP governor said. "A statement of our prosperity is a dome and completion of this building." "My personal belief is that things are not necessarily a symbol of prosperity," Lester said. "If that's your value system, you're missing something. Humans are what are valuable."

Other Oklahomans, however, said they would take pride from completion of the dome. "The Capitol never has looked quite right because it hasn't had a dome," said a state agency employee. "After construction starts, I think people will get excited about it." "It's about time," said Linda Fidler, who works for a communications company in Oklahoma City. "I saw a television quiz show one time and the answer to one question was that Oklahoma was the only state in the country to have a Capitol building with an unfinished dome. That's not a good image for us, to have unfinished business."

There has not been a lot of publicity about plans for the dome and it was not a consideration in this year's legislative session. John Cox, Keating's press secretary, said it has never been a secret that Keating wanted to finish the project -- at least by 2007, when the state celebrates its centennial. But Cox said things didn't fall into place until recently, when enough donations were pledged by businesses and individuals and $5 million in bond funds became available. He said the governor, before making an announcement, wanted to make sure that officials secured enough private funds to complete the project. A premature announcement, Cox said, could have been a public relations disaster, again showing the state cannot finish what it starts. Now, he said. "the money is there and this thing is going to happen."

Past efforts to fund a dome have gone awry, including several legislative proposals. Former Gov. Henry Bellmon named a committee to begin raising funds for a dome in the late 1980s, but the project never took off. Keating personally helped in the latest fund-raising effort, Cox said. Leading the effort were Blake Wade, who is heading the centennial celebration, and Ed Cook, former tourism director. It is a bipartisan project, Cox said. "Democratic Sen. Gene Stipe of McAlester has been very supportive, which is obvious by his personal donation," he said.

Stipe, the dean of the Oklahoma Legislature, was present at last week's announcement. The Stipe family was listed as $1 million contributors. The fact that some citizens may think the project is extravagant doesn't surprise Cox. He said Oklahoma City's MAPS downtown renovation project was initially chided, but has become a source of community pride. "Any time you have a project of this significance, you're going to have some skeptics up front," Cox said. He said MAPS was heavily criticized by many citizens who now feel it has been "a wonderful thing for Oklahoma City, improving attitudes and quality of life. I expect a similar reaction to this."

Officials are shooting for completing the 155-foot dome of stone and structural steel by Statehood Day, Nov. 16, 2002, about the time of the election to pick Keating's successor. The dome will double the height of the Capitol, a neoclassical building that is laden with marble. Officials say the dome will become a significant tourism attraction because Capitol visitors will be able to go to the base of the structure and get a panoramic view of Oklahoma City. Ground was broken for the building 86 years ago, but it fell victim to politics and the shortage of materials during World War I.