Expo center dedicated, honoring civic leader Clay Bennett

By William Crum

The Oklahoman


Thursday was Clay Bennett's day — but the civic leader and Thunder chairman turned it into a tribute to the citizens who have supported Oklahoma City's 20-year renaissance.


Dignitaries including Gov. Mary Fallin came to State Fair Park to honor Bennett and dedicate the Bennett Event Center, the latest project financed by MAPS 3.


A plaque unveiled at the ceremony recognized Bennett's "vision and extraordinary leadership" as a member for 30 years of the State Fair board, including 14 years as chairman.


With its opening this month, the Bennett Event Center becomes the city's biggest event space, with an exhibit hall bigger than three football fields.


Addressing about 150 guests including more than a dozen family members, Bennett said the moment was "truly, truly overwhelming. It is beyond humbling."


The expo center will broaden Oklahoma City's horizons for events such as trade and auto shows, and supplement already world-class horse-show facilities.


"I'm so excited for what this building will mean to the fair and to the city," Bennett said.


"We're Okies and we do things together and we do them well and we do them right … and it's a privilege to be part of that," he said.


Bennett recalled the childhood thrills of attending the Oklahoma State Fair with his parents.


"The sounds of the rides and the smell of the food row and the people-watching and the fun and just being with each other," he said.


"It just to me became through time — and is today even more so — Oklahoma, it's just everything about Oklahoma," Bennett said.


"Everyone is welcome here," he said, "everyone has a connection here."


The public's first look at the expo center comes later this month, when the Oklahoma City Home and Garden Show sets up shop at State Fair Park from Jan. 20 to 22.


The $50 million-plus expo center is opening debt-free as part of MAPS 3.


Metropolitan Area Projects, or MAPS, began in the 1990s with a voter-approved 1-cent sales tax. Voters extended MAPS for projects including arena and school improvements.


MAPS 3 is financing projects including sidewalks and trails, senior health and wellness centers, a convention center and downtown streetcar system.


Referring to $150 million in investments over the past 12 years at State Fair Park and more broadly to the city's renaissance under MAPS, Bennett said it was made possible by the "extraordinary relationship" the public and the business community have with each other.


Business leaders compete and have different objectives on certain issues but, he said, "at the end of the day we put that aside and do what's best for the city."


"So for the city and the business community to have the shared values and to come together that way, to think about the greater good all the time, is very, very powerful and is what's driven all of this great success that we've had," Bennett said.


"The citizens are the start of the show," he said. "The citizens understood MAPS, they believed in MAPS, they wanted things better here.


"They believed this was a good plan, they invested in the plan, and have fostered the plan," he said. "And it's worked."


Bennett said the past couple of years, marked by the downturn in the oil-and-gas industry, have been for Oklahoma and Oklahoma City "a tough little skid."


"But we have done too much good — we've done too much good — to not continue to go forward," he said.


Mayor Mick Cornett said Bennett was "a guy that's been doing it his entire adult life."


"We can make a list of people who love Oklahoma City a great deal but Clay's got to be near the top," Cornett said.


"This guy has put his heart and his soul into making this city better and whatever's in the city's best interest is Clay's top priority."


Bennett said Oklahoma City "was as flat as it could be 20 years ago — and look at it today."


"Let's join hands, let's be together, let's be positive," he said.


"And let's come into this new year and really, really try to work hard and constructively in a principled and fair way to move the city and state forward and put this couple years behind us."