For those of you that didn't see this article in the Sunday Oklahoman, it was a real eye opener. I'm quite surprised the current owners didn't take Cornett up on any financial help to get renovations up and running. That doesn't show much forward thinking in my opinion. In my opinion, they really need to focus on getting a bank to fill that building. I'd like to see that Banking Hall back up and running. The owners of The Tower were finally successful at landing a bank. It's nice seeing that new Valliance Bank Sign on the top of that building.

Anyways, I still think First National should be renamed the Sooner State Building! A good reference to a building it resembles.

"City landmark struggling back from decline

By Steve Lackmeyer
The Oklahoman

George Shear remembers a time when the First National Center was the pride of downtown Oklahoma City.
Now the building's property manager knows it's more often the source of rumors -- talk of tenants coming and going -- fears of the landmark closing its doors. The latter rumor was enough to prompt Mayor Mick Cornett to pay a visit to the owners during a visit to New York.

"I wanted them to know, with a mayor's visit, that First National is a very high priority for our city," Cornett said.

Cornett was prepared to discuss with owners Joel Hoffman and Mitchell Wolff whether the city needed to assist with renovations, as with a pending deal for reopening the nearby Skirvin Hotel.

The owners' response surprised Cornett. They don't want any city assistance, and they assured him they have some promising leasing prospects they hope will bring the building back to its glory days.

A few weeks later, Hoffman and Shear gave Cornett a tour of the three buildings spanning a city block.

On the tower's 23rd floor, Cornett saw the renovated offices for the law firm of Leonard & Associates. Devon Energy has moved some of its expanded operations into previously empty floors in the center building.

The mayor also saw a rest room added to one floor to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act -- a law that frowns on the 73-year-old tower's placement of rest rooms between floors.

Shear, property engineer for First National Center between 1973 and 1985, was brought back as manager this year. He admits the building is a far cry from when owners had to sort through a waiting list of law, oil and gas, and professional firms wanting to call First National their home.

Also long gone is First National Bank -- once the most powerful financial institution in the city, if not the state. When the bank failed in 1986, Shear said, he knew it was just a matter of time before the succeeding out-of-state owners would abandon the tower.

And in 1993, Boatmen's Bank (now Bank of America) did just that.

"I've been through the bad and the good here, and the bad hurt," Shear said. "There were people in this town who just couldn't believe the bank would fail. The bank was probably about 70 percent of this building."

After a 19-year absence, Shear returned to find the building struggling back from an occupancy of 17 percent to 35 percent today. Despite the exodus or demise of many of the building's tenants, Shear found some veterans still sticking around.

But their presence isn't guaranteed -- even with the resurgence of downtown.

Hopes for change
Jim Foliart was lead partner in a two-man law firm when he moved into the tower in 1949. When the bank closed and then left for the modern glass-encased Leadership Square across the street, Foliart's firm stayed put in offices once used by Robert S. Kerr.

Foliart and his partner, Glenn Huff, are saying good-bye to First National, moving Foliart Huff Ottaway & Bottom and its 42 employees to downtown's Bank of Oklahoma Tower.

"This is probably the most vacant this office has been that I can recall," Foliart said. "But I think with the revitalization of downtown, it's going to change in the future."

Sitting in his office as the hallways fill up with packing boxes, Foliart admits the move isn't easy. He recalls when the building buzzed with activity, when the bank erected giant Christmas trees in the ornate Great Banking Hall.

Huff laments that the Great Banking Hall has stood empty for the past decade. He recalls throngs of office workers gathering inside the banking hall to watch the World Series on television.

"In all my travels, I've seen very few buildings anywhere in the country that compare to this," Huff said. "When you go to Grand Central Station, you can see much of the same grandeur and architecture you can see here downstairs."

Those sentimentalities aside, Huff said the firm needed to expand into renovated space -- and the owners couldn't meet their needs.

Wolff said he and his partner did their best to keep the law firm and are sad to see it go. He said the office complex is suffering the same problems hampering leasing of other downtown properties.

"It's both a soft and thin market," Wolff said. "There just aren't a lot of new tenants moving into downtown."

Plagued by parking woes
Parking is still a "major problem," Wolff said, even with the 1,000-space expansion of the Galleria Parking Garage west of the tower.

"That will help," Wolff said. "But the tenants we've spoken to in the suburbs and downtown are very sensitive to walking any distance."

Until 1998, the property included the attached Main Street Parking Garage. But the garage was separated from First National Center when the buildings, but not the parking, were donated to Feed the Children.

A year later, the office complex was bought from Feed the Children by Mitchell and Wolff, who have to find parking for tenants in nearby public garages.

Wolff said he and Hoffman would like to see the city improve flight service to Will Rogers World Airport.

Creating direct flights to the East Coast, Wolff said, is critical to convincing companies to move to downtown Oklahoma City.

Solve the parking and air service problems, and improve marketing, and downtown's office space will quickly fill up, Wolff said.

"We think the city is on the verge of really being discovered," Wolff said. "There is no reason why a major corporation cannot come to downtown Oklahoma City."