From Tough Times to Top Times in Tulsa: LaFortune’s First Term

Associate Editor

CLEAR VISION: With Tulsa’s changing skyline in the background, Mayor Bill LaFortune stands on the banks of the Arkansas River which is set for major development as part of Vision 2025. LaFortune will be running for his second term of office in 2006.

D.J. MORROW INGRAM for GTR Newspapers

From his office on the southeast corner of the 11th floor of City Hall, Mayor Bill LaFortune has a bird’s eye view of the city whose future is being determined by the mayor and his leadership team’s “vision.” His office is filled with mementos of his three and a half years in the mayor’s office and the many years of prior public service. The word “vision” is prominent and it is obvious this is a word associated with LaFortune long before the popular “Vision 2025” vote in 2003. In fact, it was a key word used in his 2002 campaign.

“I don’t claim to have any crystal ball to know single-handedly what is the right course for Tulsa,” LaFortune says. “But I think I have been good at pulling together the right assortment of leaders to make the right decisions to set us on the right course.”

But it is a process that hasn’t come without some pain.
“I think perhaps because of the excitement of what’s happening now in Tulsa many people have forgotten what we’ve been through these past three and a half years,” he says. “When I came into office we inherited one of the worst economic downturns this city has ever experienced.”

The mayor’s first year in office was marked by a historical 11 percent reduction in the city’s operational budget due to steep declines in sales tax revenue. Budget cuts were made through layoffs of non-public safety employees, closure of many city pools, employee pay cuts and other measures.

“It was a rough time for city government, city employees and the community in general,” LaFortune says. “We had to make a lot of tough decisions. But we made it through and I’m proud we were able to guide the city through the tough times and be part of the economic recovery that began in late 2004 and continues today.

“We expect 2006 to be the strongest in a decade and to recover the jobs lost in 2002-2003,” he says, citing a study by the OSU Center for Applied Economic Research.

LaFortune stressed the City is not just sitting back waiting for the dollars to come knocking at the door.

“We are getting ready to undertake some very aggressive efforts in the arena of economic development with specific focuses on retail sales opportunities,” he says. “We will be implementing a number of reforms within city government to make it easier to do business here.”

As one example, the Mayor cited there would be significant changes in the permits and planning process – an area that has been the target of great criticism by developers.
“I believe the changes will send a strong signal to the development community that Tulsa is going to have a more development friendly, efficient and timely permitting and planning process.”

All of this is being accomplished by one of the many coalitions LaFortune has gathered to address city issues.

“It is important that Tulsa is singing the same song and playing off of the same sheet music in economic development as well as other areas,” he says. “By getting all the parties working together we become much more attractive to potential developers.

“It may sound simplistic but it has been a challenge to make it happen. But the fruits of those labors are becoming readily apparent.”

The city is working closely with the Tulsa Metro Chamber to target job growth with a goal of attracting 25,000 quality jobs to the area in five years.

“Working hand in hand with the Chamber we will be proactively targeting specific job sectors that are a good fit for Tulsa,” he says. “Among those will be aerospace, telecommunications, science and research. We will target existing businesses to add jobs and recruit new businesses that fit those clusters. We are planning for success in this area and I have every belief it will happen.”
Helping those plans along is Vision 2025. Its passage in September 2003 by more than 60 percent of the voters was a huge victory for LaFortune, particularly in light of the two civic project propositions voters had rejected in 1997 and 2000.
“Without a doubt, we as a city and county laid a foundation for growth with Vision 2025,” he says. “The bricks and mortar improvements you are beginning to see evidence of with the cranes in the air will be the bedrock for our future economic growth and enhanced quality of life.”

A key asset of Vision 2025 is the BOk Center, Tulsa’s new 18,000 seat, 550,000 square foot facility that will be the largest public project ever built in Tulsa.

“The BOk Center will not only be an icon for our city and transform our skyline, but it will be an economic cornerstone and ‘calling card’ to those considering making Tulsa ‘home’.”
LaFortune is quick to point out other elements of the 32 countywide Vision 2025 projects.

“The higher education elements are all critical to our ability to attract new business and the improvements to our surrounding communities are essential as well. I want people to remember that Vision 2025 and the resulting projects was an intensely citizen driven process conducted over many months involving literally thousands of people.”

The projects that perhaps have LaFortune most excited are those involving the Arkansas River. Again, he brought together a coalition to work on an Arkansas River Corridor Master Plan.
“We engaged business, neighborhood, tribal and government entities to develop the ‘vision’ for the river.”

Plans call for additional low-water dams, fishing piers, marinas, boardwalks and riverfront development. It is expected the Master Plan will be released before the end of 2005.

“I hope all area citizens are feeling the energy that Vision 2025 and the other economic development projects are creating,” he says. “It’s more than just bricks and mortar. It’s a renewed hope, excitement and confidence in our future.”

As LaFortune approaches the end of his first term of office he is planning his reelection campaign so he can “finish what has been started.”

“We came in to a difficult situation and had to make difficult decisions,” he says. “It required strong leadership from our office and the department heads and strong support and dedication by city employees. We’ve come through those tough times and see good days ahead.

“We passed Vision 2025 and are now seeing cranes in the air. It is important for the leadership team to stay in place see the projects completed rather than face possible delays by having to start with a new team that hasn’t been involved.”

Updated 12-19-2005

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