Tulsa County Stays Dry After Negative River Vote

Contributing Editor

NOT ROLLING ALONG: The Arkansas River as it looks from the Tulsa side toward the Jenks Bridge with the RiverWalk Shopping Center in the background.

GTR Newspapers photo

The Arkansas River tax vote is over. Tulsa County, by a narrow margin, rejected it. The question now is what will be the effects of the vote and where does Tulsa go from here?

Understandably, opponents of the measure are less likely to see long-term effects than are proponents.

Tulsa City Council representative Rich Westcott gave a quick indication that despite the vote, efforts to capitalize on the river would continue. His district consists of West Tulsa and that portion east of the Arkansas River west of Harvard Avenue and north to East 61st Street.

“The morning after the election I instructed my staff to start investigating ways the city could make sufficient land available to a developer for a residential and commercial area similar to Branson Landing. Right now I’m looking at the Riverwest Festival Park and the concrete plant that adjoins it. That’s my Plan B.
“Such a development would have to be a unique draw. We are going to have to woo outlets new to Tulsa.

He adds, “There’s no doubt that the negative vote is going to have a negative factor in wooing new companies. We will have much to overcome.”

When asked if he thought the opposition from the Broken Arrow Chamber of Commerce and the Broken Arrow mayor would sour relations between our two cities, Westcott said, “Not as far as I’m concerned. You take a position, you campaign for it, you take a vote and whatever the outcome you move on down the road.”

Tulsa Mayor Kathy Taylor feels the vote will prove a negative but not a huge one.

“We have so much going for the area,” she said at the recent groundbreaking at the Tulsa Hills shopping complex in West Tulsa, “that the momentum won’t be stopped by this one vote. Tulsa is going to continue making progress.”

Jenks Mayor Vic Vreeland has a mixed view of the outcome. With the Riverwalk district up and going and a $900 million development announced, Jenks has done the most to capitalize on its position along the river. Still, Vreeland says, the image presented to those looking at locating in Tulsa can’t help but be negative. Constant water in the River would be a positive for Jenks.

Bixby City Manager Micky Webb is also disappointed that the measure didn’t pass but says Bixby will move on.

“We would certainly have been enhanced if it passed, but we will simply proceed on our projects and improvement.”

Webb sees a bright future for his city. “The Spirit Bank Center will open next September and the $50 million South Village River Park development will by open in 2010, so we are going to press forward. It would have been nice to have the pedestrian bridge and the low-water dam, but if we still want them we’re going to have to find another way to finance them.”

Broken Arrow Mayor Wade McCaleb, who campaigned against the river project, thinks that any adverse effects will be short lived.
“Businessmen moving into a city want to look at the cost of doing business, the quality of education and the availability of a trained workforce. In Oklahoma we have very good relations between labor and management and an excellent business climate with good programs on the state level to assist businesses in getting started.

“We have needs in Broken Arrow and the river project would have siphoned our ability to go ahead with meeting them. The result doesn’t tie our hands in the future.

“We are now going on with a major effort to woo businesses to Broken Arrow and I’ve talked to a number of Tulsa businessmen who want to get involved.

“I do expect piece-by-piece development to go on. Tulsa and Sand Springs and Jenks and Bixby can continue to do their individual things.”

Roscoe Turner, chairman of the Tulsa City Council and one of the three councilmen to oppose the project, never liked the county involving itself with the sales tax, which is the tax base for the city of Tulsa.

“We need (the 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 city limits and the county is responsible for the unincorporated part of the county and that’s how it should stay.”

Still, Turner said he would ask the City Council to move forward in developing the west bank of the Arkansas. He said the Council needed to send the administration something indicating they were in favor of the development.

Owasso City Manager Rodney Ray disagrees with McCaleb’s basic analysis of the after-effects of the negative votes.

“There was a time when his was the conventional wisdom, but the world has changed. Now the primary thing people are looking for is the quality of life. The biggest demand in the workforce is young (25-40) well-trained professionals who are energetic and able. These people can go anywhere they like, and they like to go to places near the amenities they want. The river project would have drawn those amenities to Tulsa.”

One man who has been at the forefront of trying to revive downtown Tulsa takes a dim view of the election.

“In the big picture for outside investment, it’s going to be a strong negative,” says Michael Sager, a major developer in the Blue Dome district.

“The voters have just said ‘we don’t want to make things better’ and making things better means making them better all the time. We need to show once again we’re a city on the march, just like Oklahoma City has.

“The bit-by-bit improvements being talked about will help. Progress is not about excluding anybody; it’s about educating people. In the last election there was a failure to communicate with north Tulsans the fact that if you were poor the new tax wouldn’t affect you at all.

“The results of the election will slow down development in Tulsa, but it won’t stop it.”

Howard Barnett Jr., general manager of TSF Capital LLC, an investment firm, can take both a close-up and far away look at the results of the “no” vote.

Barnett has been both chairman of the Tulsa Metro Chamber and Oklahoma’s Secretary of Commerce.

“The problem,” he says, “is not just what we didn’t get, but that we have just announced to the world that we are not willing to invest in ourselves. Other cities competing for a business that are looking for a new location will undoubtedly bring up Tulsa’s vote. It will have a negative economic effect for years.

“As for another plan replacing it on the ballot within the near future, I think the political realities are that it won’t be brought up again for years. This was a basic plan. It was about putting water into the river. This was the Indian Nations Council of Governments (INCOG) plan which was developed over years with tons of input from public meetings.

“That plan has been turned down.”

Where do we go from here?

Updated 10-22-2007

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