Father of Resurgent Downtown on a Mission

Michael Sager had a vision for 2025 before it became a political slogan.

Referred to as the “Father of Downtown Resurgence,” the creator of the Blue Dome District lives, eats and breathes redevelopment.

“We are about creating spaces for creative people,” Sager said.

Sager is a downtown Tulsa advocate, who seeks converts all the time.

Momentum is building.

Today Sager is working to enhance several buildings in the Blue Dome District centered along Detroit Avenue between First and Second streets. His efforts include adaptive reuse of “Finales” to the First Street Lofts and restoration of the Blue Dome Diner. Also, he’s working on the Vickery Phillips 66 Station restoration for Avis.

New businesses seem to open more frequently, he said, referring to Dwelling Spaces — next to Tsunami Sushi — Dirties Tavern and Continental, to name a few.

The area is becoming a 24/7 destination that eventually will include entertainment, residential and retail uses.

To say Sager is driven would be an understatement.

“What sets me apart today is the commitment to our mission,” Sager said. “Our mission as we have accepted it is to acquire and develop as much of the eastern edge of Downtown as we possible can and stimulate others to do the same.”

Lifestyle

The transformation of Downtown will take a lifestyle and attitude change, he said.

Building design and landlord attitudes must adapt to the post-modern breed of young professional seeking to carve their niche within the Inner Dispersal Loop.

The change cannot happen too soon for Sager.

“If anything is happening five doors down from you — you are already behind the curve,” he said.

Small business owners stimulate the resurgence and redevelopment of the eastern sector of the Blue Dome district and the Brady district with the landlords, help.

The Brady district, north of the central business district and centered at Main Street and Brady Avenue, is one of Tulsa’s oldest areas. It is characterized by two-story brick warehouses and contains two of Tulsa’s most historic entertainment venues — the Brady Theater and Cain’s Ballroom.

Village People

“Villages are where there was a sharing of ideas, money and products,” he said. “Today, we want to pasteurize things — ‘don’t put the American Statue too close to the zoo, because it is competitive.’ Or, ‘don’t put it too close to this or that,’ — not to single out the zoo — but we want to manipulate everything.”

The American, a 217-foot bronze statue of a Native American, is planned for Holmes Peak in Osage County 7 miles northwest of downtown.

Sager’s advice would be to put all the landmarks within 15 square blocks in downtown and “invite the whole world to come.”

“And, heck with traffic,” he said. “Traffic is OK.”

Historic but Abandoned

When Sager started purchasing toward the end of the millennium, every building he looked at was empty. “Many of them did not have electrical service in them; most did not have store fronts. They were boarded and abandoned. People saw these buildings as nothing but storage buildings, a place to park their junk.”

Sager started with one, now he has 20 properties.

Not all purchases worked out.

“We had made some buys from time to time that — five years later — we are not sure why we did it.”

Then, in 1999, Sager made the decision to liquidate all his other assets around town and moved everything to what he calls the “core,” along First and Second Streets.

“The reason was for synergy. If I restore and develop a building, and I own the building next door, I’ve helped the neighborhood and myself,” he said. “If I own 20 pieces scattered around Tulsa, it means I’ve done little to make the neighborhood any better.”

The original Route 66 runs through the district and the Blue Dome is near the original rail yard where there were thousands of people living, conducting business, living in hotels and eating at the local cafes.

“We are trying to bring that back,” Sager said.

Vision

Several things need to come together in order to accomplish Sager’s vision. First, more owner/operators of businesses must begin renovating buildings and encourage others to do the same. “I think we have had three or four great success stories,” Sager said. “We need to ratchet that success rate up. It needs to be stimulated by a greatly improved attitude toward where we are in the community. “Secondly, landlords need to stimulate activity by being more flexible to all small business prospects for their buildings.” And, not just looking for the golden egg — they need to support local businesses.”

Third, local trolley shuttles need to run every 5 to 7 minutes.

Vision 2025 goes a long way toward creating the village atmosphere with plans for the Centennial Walk and Park, Route 66 and BOK Arena improvements, Sager said.

“Of course, major facilities are just terrific. There needs to hotels nearby to complete the picture,” he said.

The Westin made a play to do just that in August by offering to build next door to the BOK Center. Sager says that both hurdles should be achievable.

Overall, downtown has to become a unified district politically, socially and economically.

“It is already the financial hub, it is already the religious hub as most major denominations have a facility and several of those are undergoing renovations,” he said, referring to First Baptist Church, First Presbyterian and Trinity Epis.

Meanwhile, the entertainment district has blossomed.

For example, Cains Ballroom ranked in Pollstar’s Top 40 list of live music venuesbased on ticket sales, according to the Web site.

The Brady Theater, a landmark built 92 years ago, is undergoing remodeling.

Performing Arts Center sells about 350,000 tickets per year.

At the same time, several property owners have joined Sager in the resurgence, he said. They include David Sharp, Glen Stroble, Frank Stewart and Tom Wallace.

“An enormous number of projects have come out of the ground in the last year — Wallace Engineering, New Medio, & The Perimeter Technology Building. Stewart renovated the old icehouse that was abandoned for 50 years on the railroad for Workforce Oklahoma.”

“There is the Global Development Partners project, the potential ballpark and retail — everything is coming this way,” he said.

The downtown development mix of retail residential and entertainment is expected to fill 14 blocks next to the east leg of the Inner Dispersal Loop. The project is organized by Washington, D.C.-based Global Development Partners, said Tim Kissler, CEO.

Life

Sager grew up in Tulsa and attended Cascia Hall. He later left to work for NBC in Kansas City area. From there he went to California — “a virtual breeding ground for ideas and big concepts.”

He established an international export shipping business that became the largest packing company in England.

After a decade in the business and filling up a couple of passports, he decided he did not want to live a fast-paced international lifestyle.

“My family has been in Tulsa since 1918,” he said. “Someone has been in residence here. Everybody leaves and it was my turn to come back.”

He’s lived in Dallas, Kansas City, Los Angeles and 10 years in and out of Europe.

“I have always had a keen interest in how and where people live,” he said. Sager’s family shares his passion for downtown.

“My family and my heart are here,” he said. ?



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