While Step Up Tulsa!’s plans of action for Tulsa’s priorities may have taken most of a year to create, they establish an agenda for the growth of the city for decades, said the co-chairs of the volunteer community development initiative.
“For Step Up Tulsa!, the overriding objective was to develop a plan of plans for this city to make it a great city,” said Samuel Combs III, co-chairman of the organization and president of Oneok Distribution Cos. The idea was to “establish fundamental priorities that the city would commit itself to over the next – I don’t know how many years – 20 to 30 years for some of this stuff. Where should it focus its investment.”
In February, Step Up Tulsa!’s stakeholders identified five major goals, or what they called trendbenders, that the initiative would target for change. Comprised of about 150 volunteers from all segments of the Tulsa community – government, corporate and nonprofit – the stakeholders worked for the next several months developing their recommendations. The plans tackled the areas of economic development, health, education, sense of place and pride. In September, the stakeholders completed those recommendations for the community.
Co-chair Jim Adelson, president and managing member of Tulsa oil and gas firm Nadel and Gussman, LLC, uses the analogy of a puzzle for the task that was set before the Step Up Tulsa! stakeholders.
“We had all the pieces that were out there, and no one was quite sure what the picture would look like. Some people were comfortable with that, and some people were a little bit uncomfortable,” he said.
“From our perspective, it was a challenge, not so much what the goal would be, but how would you express those goals in a clear and concise way,” said Combs. “From a leadership standpoint, throughout the process we were challenged with that question because some of the work that we are doing is somewhat esoteric and at the same time it could be easily confused with work that has been done before or could be confused with what I would term as project-based community initiatives that are on-going to date. And so the clarity issue has always been a challenge.”
“One of the strengths of what has been done is because we didn’t attack it with a preconceived notion,” he said. “I think people can find some comfort and be confident in the fact that we did go through an exhaustive process, and whether or not some of the initiatives look similar or not, the key is that they were identified as priorities through an exhaustive process rather than people arriving at the conclusion well in advance. That was the puzzle aspect. We didn’t do that. We didn’t try to outguess the process.”
Time to Step Up
Step Up Tulsa! is a project developed by Funders Roundtable, a group of the region’s private, public, and corporate foundations, and is staffed by Tulsa Community Foundation.
“When I first got involved, the Tulsa Funders roundtable group said we need a study of the region of what needs are so we can understand what we need to be funding,” Adelson said.
The stakeholders were a group of “selected volunteers, if you will, that came from all segments of the community, not for profit or philanthropic, corporate, government, you name it, they were represented there,” Combs said.
“Everyone was there because they realized they had to ‘step up’ and give their time and intellectual talent to making Tulsa a better place,” Adelson said. “There are some people who have said, including Bing Thom, our community is one that plans and plans and plans and never does anything. Some people said it just may be another plan of plans – we’ve done that lots of times. Unless certain foundations get behind it financially and really support these things, it’s just going to be another plan of plans. We hope that in this case we have some significant backing.”
Thom, an internationally known urban designer, operates Bing Thom Architects, based on Vancouver, British Columbia.
The Step Up Tulsa! process included “a review of the collective research that has been done on community initiatives of the past,” Combs said. “If you go back – some of that stuff goes back 20 years or more – why reinvent the wheel. The data is there.”
In addition, the stakeholders “went out and asked 4,000-5,000 people across the different groups of the city what do you see are the needs.”
Initiatives for the Long Term
The result of their efforts “is not a project-based initiative,” said Combs. “Projects have a finite life. I don’t care if you are doing a river or you’re doing a particular district in town or commercial area. Once that’s built, its done. But the question remains, is it the right kind of project for this city at this time?”
The Step Up initiatives are about “being cohesive and disciplined in that area … and then people knowing 3 years, 5 years, 10 years out, we are on the right track,” he said. “This is a longer term look.”
While the intent would be to fund the initiatives as much as possible through philanthropic efforts and government grants, if the community determines it needs a significant project, like a research library that may cost $60 to 70 million, Adelson said there may need to be public financial support.
“There may be some that say we really do need a state-of-the-art library and, if you can sell it, and there might need to be some tax dollars,” he said.
“You let the dollars take care of themselves,” Combs said. We have a plan here that says these five areas will give a return on investment. They have been established as priorities by a very significant sampling of this city – not just anybody, but people who are knowledgeable in this area with the assistance of world-class consultants.”
Adelson said the initiatives will encourage creating public and private partnerships “to work together to try to make our region a better place.”
“With the Internet, and all the high tech, to build great companies you don’t have to be in New York City or San Francisco anymore,” he said. “You can build a huge company in Tulsa. But in order for these smart guys to build their companies, they have to be able to attract smart people to come work for them. And we have to create an environment where the smart people will want to move into this community.”
“Atmosphere” is one of the “fundamental underpinnings to building communities,” Combs said. “What brings quality people to your community or what helps you retain the talented young people who are here now that you are exporting? People want to live in smart, hip, cool, tolerant, innovative type cities.”
Time for Venture Philanthropy
That concept offers different perspective for the philanthropic community, Adelson said.
“What Step Up provides them (philanthropists) is an opportunity that instead of just investing in social service opportunities, that they actually look at some opportunities for venture philanthropy, where they are actually combining finances with their intellectual talent – they are actually bringing ideas and bringing strategies to build Tulsa’s economic development improvements,” he said. “A lot of times foundations will give a check to the United Way agency and that’s it. This is more.
“Step up is an initiative that challenges the community to step up, get aligned, focus on these five priorities and make investments in your community,” Combs said. “It’s about being proactive instead of reactive, it’s about being offensive in the things you do rather than defensive, its about managing the demand side as opposed to reacting to the supply side in terms of fixing it after it is broke.
“It’s long term. It’s a cultural shift. It’s everyone thinking and understanding these are the priorities and the things we need in this community and that they goes beyond today’s or this year’s project. It’s about how we are going to approach the growth of this city for the next 25 years.” ?