Purchasing Power

Those who frequent downtown Tulsa, and even those who only visit once in a while, may wonder where in downtown they can shop for goods. As of yet, there aren’t many options. City leaders see retail on the horizon of downtown development, but most say a number of other factors must be put into place first.
When visiting the downtowns of large, metropolitan areas, either for work or for pleasure, travelers tend to stay close to the city’s heart. Typically, there isn’t much reason to wander. In most downtowns, you can find accommodating hotels, fine and casual dining options and plenty of retail outlets with shelves stocked full of souvenirs awaiting dissipation to new homes across the country.
As downtown Tulsa attempts to make itself more attractive to travelers, lauds the opening of the BOK Center, anticipates hotel construction to serve BOK visitors, prepares to break ground on a new minor league baseball stadium and celebrates the sporadic opening of a new restaurant or bar, the revitalizing factor that seems low on the list of priorities, is retail development.
Mike Neal, president of the Tulsa Metro Chamber of Commerce, said, “Tulsa’s no different from any major city in this country, any major metropolitan area, in that, over the last 20 to 30 years, most of these communities have had a slow, gradual decaying of their downtown core base, and they have experienced enormous loss of retail to the suburbs and to the malls. You can go anywhere in America and you’ll see that today.”
But many of the major metropolitan areas of which Neal speaks have managed to keep their hearts beating, and their downtowns are lined with hotels, restaurants, bars and plenty of smaller-scale and locally-owned boutiques for resident and visitor shopping.
Neal said he believes the opening of the BOK Center, the expansion of the Convention Center and the construction of the Drillers ballpark will encourage and stimulate additional growth downtown.
“You have to have a number of anchors,” Neal said. “We’re going to have, I think, some true anchors in downtown.”
Neal said the “anchors” must be in place to encourage people to come downtown at various hours of the evening and on the weekend.
He mentioned the second sold-out appearance by rock legends the Eagles at the BOK Center and the recent Tulsa Sports Commission’s Bill Connors Dinner honoring W.K. Warren Jr.
“At both of these events,” Neal said, “I had a number of people tell me, ‘You know, this is my first time to come downtown at night in 10 or 15 or 20 years.’ So I think you’re seeing people begin to show up at these events, specifically at the BOK Center, and they get there early and walk around.
“I really predict that what will happen in this city is what’s happening in Oklahoma City, is what’s happening in Nashville where I came from, is that you’re going to see restaurants, entertainment venues, residential and, ultimately, retail spring up all around these various venues.”
Until Tulsa sees some of that development Neal anticipates, those arriving early for concerts at the BOK Center in hopes of wandering the city, eating and shopping will be limited in their options.
Jack Crowley, who is serving as a special advisor to the Mayor on urban planning, may have said it best when he said, “If you want to know how far people will walk, the thing to ask is ‘through what?’”
Walking 10 blocks through a desolate city to get to a concert might seem agonizing to the folks who have to do it. But the hike would certainly seem more enjoyable were there boutiques, gift shops and restaurants lining those streets.
Still, Crowley doesn’t see retail development high on downtown’s list of priorities, either. He has observed Tulsa as a resident and proponent for years and has designed immense and creative development for downtown Tulsa, foreshadowing what our city could look like in five or 10 years. He said downtown Tulsa’s priority should be residential development, which includes permanent homes as well as transient residential, like hotels.
“If you’re ever going to light (downtown) up at night, you have to have people here all the time,” Crowley said.
“If you want more restaurants for downtown tourism, you have to have someone eating there all the time. What comes first? The food store or residential? The chicken is residential and the egg is the food store, and the chicken came first,” said Crowley.
He said that development like the Drillers stadium will attract residents and that there are a number of residential projects in the works, including the Mayo Hotel, the Mayo lofts and the Marriott Hotel in the Atlas Life building.
Even with major residential development in downtown Tulsa, though, Crowley still does not believe retail development will follow very quickly. He, like Neal, cited an ancient trend in retail development moving out of town, into suburbs, and offered Woodland Hills Mall and the new Tulsa Hills shopping center near 71st Street and U.S. 75 as examples. He said those shifts have continued to keep retail options out of downtown.
“Even Utica Square, to a large extent, probably condemned downtown (shopping),” Crowley said.
But, he added, “There is a very strong national desire—(in places like) Atlanta, Houston, even Dallas—for people to go back into the areas that became obsolete and less expensive. Then it’ll become yuppy and trendy and expensive again.”
There is one man whose presence is prominent in downtown development and who believes retail should be a priority when it comes to downtown development. Michael Sager, owner and developer of a number of buildings in downtown Tulsa that would have otherwise been condemned, said he does see the growth of retail development as necessary to downtown’s revitalization.
“I see retail differently than a lot of people,” Sager said. “I see retail as not only dry goods but also restaurants and bars. They generate sales tax for the city and are consumable just like T-shirts are.”
He also cited the city’s need for more hotel development downtown.
“We need a hotel to come out of the ground if we’re going to continue to develop the fabric to stretch across the big skeleton of downtown,” Sager said.
He continued, “The big skeleton is the structures, like the BOK Center, the Convention Center and the ballpark. The fabric is the retail and hotel development that connects it all together.”
“The Blue Dome and Brady districts are headed in that direction,” he added.
Crowley also mentioned the need for infill development connecting the major points of downtown.
“If you add a couple more restaurants on Second Street, it doesn’t take much to connect the dots from the Blue Dome District and the BOK Center,” Crowley said.
Sager said he thinks, when people start itching for development downtown, they forget the amount of money and preparation that goes into opening one restaurant or one clothing shop.
“Every restaurant or bar that opens is a $100,000 to $500,000 commitment,” Sager said. “People don’t realize that. I’m about to meet with a grocer/restaurant combination developer for the bottom of the First Street Lofts. It’s not a whimsical decision. You don’t just decide to open and then two weeks later it’s open. It takes six months to a year to put it all together.”
Sager said what entrepreneurs really need in order to be able to open retail establishments downtown is a little help from those in real estate who are developing downtown’s structures and making them habitable for business.
“(Entrepreneurs) have no capital to develop real estate,” said Sager. “They have the capital to develop their businesses, but they have to depend on others to make the space ready so that the entrepreneurs can use the capital they have to develop their business and not worry about making sure the lights come on. It’s a partnership.”
He also said that confidence in the future of downtown is key if it’s going to have any kind of future. And while Mayor Kathy Taylor has shown her support for downtown development and for local entrepreneurs, most recently with the opening of the Collaboratorium at 111 W. Fifth St., Sager pointed to city councilors who, he said, have very little interest in the development of downtown.
“We have city councilors who have a bad attitude about downtown because it’s not in their district or in their interests,” Sager said. “They need to quit maligning downtown. People on the city council talk about downtown negatively, with a lack of confidence, every day. We need to be as positive as we can about downtown and fix its frailties, not magnify its frailties.”
Mary Beth Babcock, owner of Dwelling Spaces, a funky boutique at 119 S. Detroit Ave. carrying accessories, home d√?cor and Tulsa-themed gifts, opened her business downtown a couple of years ago.
In her search for the perfect location, she said, she came across her space, which had, until that point, been used for storage. For her, it wasn’t about making a statement about the need for development downtown. It was about finding a space large enough to grow her business at a reasonable cost. And she just happened to find that space downtown.
The success of her business, though, has aligned her, at least in perception, with the need for additional development in the area. Her success is proof that it can be done. That, if you build it, market it well and offer an attractive product, they will come.
And while the idea of more stores like hers downtown makes her admittedly nervous, she said she welcomes the idea of further development in downtown.
For now, though, she has sort of a monopoly on downtown boutiques. With the help of Victor Wandres and Kanbar Properties, Babcock recently opened a second, much smaller, boutique in the Philcade building at 511 S. Boston Ave. The little shop carries Tulsa-themed books, T-shirts and a novelty gifts.
In an attempt to find out if Kanbar Properties plans to use any more of its space to encourage retail (or other) development, Wandres was somewhat cryptic, albeit encouraging, in his response.
“Kanbar Properties believes that locally owned businesses play a crucial role in maintaining vibrant, functional town centers,” he wrote in an e-mail to TBJ.
“We are always looking to bring additional tenants, both office and retail, to downtown Tulsa,” wrote Wandres. “I believe they go hand in hand.”
All of those asked to provide a time frame outlining when they expected to see retail development said it would take years.
Two new restaurants are set to open this year — Joe Momma’s Pizza and Elliot Nelson’s upscale sandwich shop Dilly Deli, both in the Blue Dome area. More bars and restaurants may follow, if developers recognize and attempt to fill the hunger of those trekking to the BOK Center.
With Drillers Stadium construction expected to be completed in a year and a half and mixed-use development planned for the area surrounding the ballpark, downtown Tulsa could see additional retail development as soon as 2010.
But most say it’ll be another five or so years, once downtown has absorbed some successful residential development, until much more happens in the way of retail development.
“I think a lot of this stuff that’s going to be happening is mixed-use development,” predicted Neal. “I don’t necessarily think you’re going to see one thing. I think it’s all inter-related and inter-connected.”

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