As Helen Keller is reported to have once said, "The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision."
In my view, real vision, true vision is precisely what is lacking in the proposed Vision 2 proposal presently being offered for consideration. With all due respect to those who's hard work and good intentions have produced this package, it is the most poorly conceived and strategically deficient tax proposal in my lifetime. As one who has supported virtually every previously proposed bond issue, I have real problems with this one.
What apparently started out as a hurried attempt to minimize the loss of American Airlines jobs has morphed into a desperately short sighted and reactionary response that offers more questions than answers. On the surface it looks like a vision of the past not a vision for the future.
For starters and as usual, there is no reference to or alignment with our newly adopted Comprehensive Plan. Every capital improvement investment should be vetted for its compatibility with and support of that plan. It (the Plan), more than anything or anyone else, including the Administration, City Council and Chamber of Commerce articulates and represents the collective "Vision" Tulsa citizens imagined as a model for growth and development in the future.
Utilizing a set of guiding principles during the PlaniTulsa process, Tulsans envisioned a community with a vibrant and sustainable economy which attracts young people and provides transportation and housing choices in walk-able neighborhoods and town centers. Those guiding principles should serve as the foundation for all future capital improvement planning and funding efforts to insure that the comprehensive plan remains consistent with that vision.
The $386 million economic development package in Part I includes $254 million for buildings, infrastructure and equipment at the Tulsa airport-industrial complex. While I agree aviation and aerospace employment is desirable and important, I question the advisability of investing millions in aging buildings many of which date to World War II. The premise that these investments might save jobs if American stays or attract new employers if they leave seems like a river boat gamble at best considering the strong financial pressure to outsource maintenance work overseas.
Regardless of how the AA bankruptcy and any potential mergers play out it seems a foregone conclusion that a substantial number of jobs will be lost. The airline has made it clear that infrastructure improvements will not guarantee anything in regards to their presence here. The industry is changing rapidly and I believe we need a bolder strategy that provides a more imaginary, a more visionary and a more sustainable aviation and aerospace future.
We must not, under any circumstances, throw good money after bad. For instance, packaging these improvements with a plethora of other initiatives appears to be a desperate attempt to promise a little something for everyone in order to overcome taxpayer's historic resistance to so called corporate welfare. If funding for these improvements can stand the scrutiny of a rigorous return on investment analysis by professional economic consultants, then a vote should be able to stand on its own merits.
I don't understand the urgency of committing to these enormous expenditures without some tangible assurances they will pay off. If the city and the region can negotiate solid lease agreements with job creation and payroll deliverables that guarantee performance or substantial penalties for the lack thereof, then we might consider asking taxpayers for help. How can we possibly justify a quarter billion dollar infrastructure improvement with anything less?
If such lease agreements are able to be secured, we need to make sure they provide adequate revenue to fund routine maintenance and periodic improvements to avoid finding ourselves once again with outdated and functionally obsolete facilities suffering from years of neglect.
The larger question is should the City of Tulsa really be in the real estate business at all?
Perhaps we should consider selling and or privatizing these assets and letting free enterprise make the best use of them. I agree with Councilors Bynum and Ewing who point out that aerospace should not be our only priority, receiving special benefits at the expense of other promising industries like healthcare, energy and manufacturing.
At the very least, any new regional strategy for the development of our aviation and aerospace industries should focus more on the emerging new technologies and related educational and research opportunities like commercial space exploration and less on the nuts and bolts ethos of the past. We should be partnering with TU, OU and OSU to help determine where best to focus our efforts.
Another component of the economic development package includes a $53 million dollar employer incentive closing fund. Proponents argue that a publically funded enticement program would allow local negotiators to offer the last piece needed to close a deal. Skeptics, including me, argue that the administration of such funds is problematic. Management by a public trust whose members lack the professional expertise to effectively analyze highly complicated business deals is risky to say the least.
Just because some other cities have these funds does not automatically mean they are a good idea because many other cities (including Portland) don't have them. I am more interested in competing with an attractive quality of life offer than hopeless bidding wars for companies who will be out the door the first time another community comes along with a better offer. Most of the really attractive deals will likely wind up in cities that can outspend us no matter what we offer.
In my opinion the economic development package in the proposed Vision 2 proposal is neither visionary nor consistent with our comprehensive plan. I believe a $386 million dollar investment in building a better community where people want to live and work and play would yield much greater dividends than doling out a pot full of money to a select few businesses on a promise and a prayer.
Bill Leighty serves on the Tulsa Metro Area Planning Commission. A longtime real estate professional in Tulsa, he also serves as vice chair of the city's Transportation Advisory Board.
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