What was promoted as a plan to bring an economic boon to the region has instead underscored the divisiveness of the Tulsa County business and civic communities.
While proponents view the failure of the Tulsa County river tax proposal as a lost opportunity for energizing river development and the economy of the region, North Tulsa community leaders say their community would not benefit from this river development plan.
The 0.4 percent sales tax that was to raise $282 million over seven years and was bolstered by $117 million in gifts was defeated Oct. 9 in a 67,026 to 60,740 vote.
The defeat has effectively removed the offer of $100 million in private funds from the George Kaiser Family Foundation to accompany public funds in the river development plan.
Ken Levit, executive director of the foundation, said, “We will go forward with the one item that we promised from the beginning, which is the trails project. Other than that we will be looking at different alternatives consistent with our core mission, which is really about early childhood education, social services and health care.”
“The blunt answer is that it (the $100 million gift) is not available for the river project, because, in our mind, that has been rejected, which is disappointing to us because we had the belief that the best avenue to putting Tulsa into a comeback mode from an economic standpoint was this project,” he said.
River tax proponent Keith Bailey, former CEO of the Williams Cos., said he had “strong feelings about the vote in a business context because what the voters have turned down is a investment proposition that any businessman would have accepted in a heartbeat – and that is investing $282 million, receiving a 16-to-1 payback on your investment in seven years and securing a $117 million, no-strings-attached donation.”
“Just that simple combination from a pure business analytics point of view is a horrible decision,” he said.
He characterized the vote as a missed opportunity.
“The land adjacent to the river is less attractive to develop today than it would have been had this all happened,” he said. “The extent that it develops will be slower in all likelihood and may not be as optimal as we would like it to be.“
North Tulsa Wants Change
North Tulsa community leaders made their opposition to the river tax well known during the majority of the campaign, saying their community would not benefit from the river tax proposal.
“It is time that north Tulsa looks like the rest of the city. That is all we are talking about,” said Tulsa City Councilor Jack Henderson.
City Councilor Roscoe Turner and Henderson said they needed development in this community.
“First of all, we are talking about quality jobs in our community,” Henderson said. “So that we do not have to go across the city, or to another city to get jobs. We should have jobs right here.”
North Tulsa has a lot of areas that can accommodate businesses and manufacturing, “that can come in here and locate,” he said.
“The land is there. The opportunity is there. Nobody is looking at it,” he said. “Because, too many years, people have been directed away from this community.”
“When people invest in an area, things happen,” Henderson said. “Schools get better. Homes get better. Property values go up. That is what we are talking about.”
North Tulsa has gone too long without, he said. Henderson plans to sit down with the Metro Chamber officials to see if, “we can together come up with ideas to promote north Tulsa.”
“Too many times in the past, north Tulsa never had a seat at the table,” Henderson said. “Voters are saying they want a seat at the table. We are not asking much.”
Josh Roby, Tulsa Young Professionals president and assistant vice president, business banker at JP Morgan Chase Bank, is disappointed at the loss of the river tax proposal.
“I’m disappointed for lots of reasons. I’m disappointed for Tulsa, but I’m also disappointed for the hundreds of volunteers from TYPros and many other organizations that put so much heart and soul into this campaign,” he said.
As for what’s next, the TYPros leadership team has not met since the election to formulate a Plan B.
“There was no contingent plan for us. We were going to do everything we could to pass it [the river tax proposal],” Roby said.
Even so, TYPros is far from throwing in the towel on Tulsa.
“We stay the course. We saw so much support from our members that I don’t think moving Tulsa forward stopped Oct. 9 because 52 percent of the voters said, ‘No.’”
“I think it’s an invitation for young professionals who want to see this metropolitan area move forward and take a more active role in that.”
“This is not a stopping point – this is a launching point. We’ve come to a tipping point, and it’s time to kick the door in, make it happen and move this city forward.”
Young Have ‘Lots to Do”
Roby predicts young professionals will become more engaged in the community – some even going to such lengths as running for public office – in the aftermath of the river tax proposal.
Roby wouldn’t say if TYPros would back another river development plan “because we didn’t commit to this without seeing a survey of our members and what they wanted,” he said. “I think the plan that was presented, being developed by INCOG and the people, was a plan our members could get behind. When you add the rare opportunity of having over $100 million in private investment, those two things set up for us to have a really easy decision.”
“If we have the opportunity again – and, quite frankly, I don’t know if we will – I see TYPros being involved on some level.”
TYPros has “lots to do” in the community post-river tax proposal.
“What we saw in the last couple of weeks of this campaign was that we have a lot of negativity in our community, and we have a lot of divisiveness. I think you’ll see TYPros really work hard to lead the way in uniting this community.”
“Before we commit to support another river plan, we need to commit to uniting our community over issues that have come to light. We need to do a better job of uniting, being more diverse and engaging the entire community, and I think you’ll see TYPros lead the way in that effort.”
Especially at the Our River Yes watch party the evening of Oct. 8, Roby noticed, “the leaders of our community are looking to the young professionals for what’s next. They really are attuned to looking at what young professionals are doing, and many told me last night the vote wouldn’t have been close without the young professionals involved. They are asking us to tell them what to do next.
Not All TYPros ‘Disappointed’
Andrea Darr, a member of TYPros, campaigned against the river tax.
“I will sleep better,” she said. “I love the effort put into this.”
The campaign against the river tax was a matter of getting everybody to understand what was going on, and that was all that it took, she said.
“I think the plan spoke for itself. It was not a good plan. It should have had more thought put into it,” she said.
River development will happen with or without the tax, Darr said.
The “vote no” campaign spent $750, according to election records — a fraction of the $1.3 million spent by the other side.
State Sen. Randy Brogdon believes Tulsa can still have river development.
“Hopefully, without a tax,” he said. “There are enough wealthy people who have already shown they are more than willing to contribute to help develop the river.”
River development should not be funded by another sales tax, he said.
“That overburdens the families that can’t afford it in the least,” he said. “Hopefully we can do it with private money.”
Any river development has to follow the Indian Nations Council of Governments Master Plan for the Arkansas River, he said.
“Four years of vetting through the community, talking to city councils, the mayors in different communities – there was the hundreds and hundreds of hours collecting citizen input,” Brogdon said. “All that is out the window with this resolution because nothing of that was in this plan, except the three low-water dams.” ?