By DAVID JONES
DISCUSSING THE VOTE: County Commissioners John Smaligo, left, Randi Miller and Fred Perry cast their votes to bring a $282 million sales tax issue to a vote of the people Oct. 9. The proposed .4-cent sales tax increase has drawn energetic responses from both proponents and opponents of the question.
DAVID JONES for GTR Newspapers
Is the timing right to vote on a tax package to develop the Arkansas River corridor in Tulsa County?
Tulsa County Commission Chairman Randi Miller is confident that when the proposed .4-cent sales tax is presented to the people it will be resoundingly accepted.
Tulsa Mayor Kathy Taylor also thinks the time is right.
“We have been working on and planning this project for years,” she says. “It’s time to stop studying and do something.”
As for the decision of the County Commission to have a vote Oct. 9 Taylor said, “The election is totally at the discretion of the County Commission. This is a project that is truly a regional project. The biggest concern we have to get an educated workforce to move to the area is the quality of life. With the Bank of Oklahoma Center and the development of the river, this area will be ready to take off.”
“Polls taken toward the end of June showed a narrow victory for the proposal,” Miller says.
A poll recently published in the Tulsa World disagrees, showing a majority of voters opposing the project.
“We’ll have to work to get it approved but the initial indications are good. Before Vision 2025 and 4 to Fix the County were announced, they had about the same acceptance ratio. When the voters had the proposals explained to them they swung behind the plans and both won by comfortable margins. I think this is what will happen again.
“We haven’t begun to outline the benefits of the project. With what we’re going to be able to tell the voters the only way the numbers can go is up.”
Miller leaves no doubt as to where she stands.
“I’ve really been working on this since I joined the City Council seven years ago and the County Commission four years ago.”
Now she has a package ready for presentation that, she says, will never be offered again.
“As a conservative Republican it is very difficult for me to ask for a tax increase, but I think the benefits will come back 10-fold. The effects will go way beyond my lifetime. It will help Tulsa compete for jobs, conventions and young professionals. Our kids and grandkids will look back and see how important this was for the whole area.”
The private investment that is assured, Miller says, is what makes the current election unique. “If this loses a few years from now we may have another vote but we won’t have the same private commitment.”
The plan calls for $282 million in tax dollars. This will include land acquisition, river bank stabilization and the constructing of low water dams and pedestrian bridges. Then the private money kicks in. The George Kaiser Foundation has pledged $111 million for development along the banks. Tim Remy is putting in a $50 million commercial development in Bixby along the river and, says Remy, he is going on with the project whether or not the sales tax passes.
A $200 million recreational development is planned for Jenks.
“The biggest individual plan is coming from Rick Huffman of Branson Landing,” says Miller. “Part of the tax money is going for land acquisition in the 23rd and Jackson area of the west side of the river. That will buy and clear the concrete plant and the festival park.
“When that is done he plans a huge retail development costing $300 million to $500 million. Even if you take the lower figure, the total amount of private money comes in to the $650-700 million range. Sen. Inhofe said he’d get behind the project if it had a 2-1 private to public monies ratio. This exceeds his demands nicely.
“If it is approved our projections are that it will have an enormous impact on Tulsa’s economy. Our studies indicate that in the next 10 years it would add $3.3 billion in economic development. At the end of those 10 years we’ll still have the added infrastructure.”
Miller acknowledges that there are pockets of resistance. One is Tulsa City Council Chairman Roscoe Turner.
“Sales taxes are the base of how we run our city,” says Turner, “and now the county wants to increase their portion of that package. We need our sales tax to make the city function.
“If we want to enhance the river we should do it ourselves. The county has no business coming into the city of Tulsa and telling us what we should do with our river. We are responsible for what happens within our corporate city limits and the county commission is responsible for the unincorporated part of the county and that’s how it should stay.”
Broken Arrow Mayor Neal McCaleb, another opponent of the sales tax, says his objection has nothing to do with the project itself but with the method of funding.
“Our calls and e-mails are running nine or ten to one against the vote. We’ve always felt this should be a city of Tulsa vote, not a county-wide vote.”
Former County Clerk and state representative Joan Hastings takes issue with McCaleb’s reasoning.
“Think of what the river will be with all the shopping areas, the restaurants, the hotels; it’s got to be good. This will be a lure not only to tourists but also to new residents. Where will those residents live? Tulsa is filling up so they’ll go to bedroom communities like Broken Arrow, Jenks, Bixby, Owasso, Skiatook and Collinsville.
“People forget what a draw the river can be. When the Great Raft Race was run, we had thousands of visitors floating in the river and lining the banks. Many of them stayed in local hotels and ate in local restaurants. The economy gained from it.”
Hastings will be part of a Chamber of Commerce speaker’s bureau promoting the tax.
“The timing is really never good for a sales tax increase but now is as good as it can be. The Tulsa economy is good, jobs are plentiful and the housing market locally is booming.
“Jenks and the aquarium are really enhancing the economy. Travelers are staying over to see it and that means money for the area. Tulsa turned down the idea of an aquarium and Jenks picked it up. We can’t keep losing opportunities like this.”
“This is regional project,” says Miller, “not just a Tulsa project. Over the years we have met with the people in Broken Arrow. They asked for $5 million for acquisition of land that would give them a presence on the Arkansas. We are willing to talk to the Broken Arrow City Council or any organization that has doubts about the project. We’d love to have the enthusiastic support of Broken Arrow, but in my opinion this plan will sell regardless. It just has too much to offer.”
In the Arkansas River project Miller has a staunch ally in Mayor Taylor. “My relationship with Mayor Taylor is very good. We are both for economic development. This will bring jobs to the entire area.”
The recent hullabaloo over the city’s acquisition of the Fairgrounds hasn’t left any permanent scars.
“We’re looking at consolidation of the city-county parks and recreation system. We can see spreading cooperation in areas such as purchasing, insurance and vehicle maintenance. There are a whole lot of areas where we can join our efforts for mutual benefit.”
For the time being, however, all such efforts take a back seat to the Arkansas River project.
“If this doesn’t pass you’ll never have another opportunity like it.”