Just now, I'm listening to a lot of "minimal" music: the work of contemporary composers like the great Philip Glass, John Adams, Steve Reich and others. It's all wonderful music but it's spare, abstract with a strange kinetic -- it's certainly not "ear wormy" or dance worthy. Without fail, I play these pieces on long bike rides and at home, but only when I'm having trouble making up my mind about something -- something important.
2003 was the last time an epochal improvement package was in play in T-Town: the first "Vision" proposal was moved that year by the Tulsa County Commission and then T-Town Mayor Bill LaFortune. I was opposed to a big part of it -- what became our wildly successful BOK arena project. I'd studied a raft of convincing analytics on how the U.S. was saturated with convention/concert spaces -- of the kind then imagined by the boosters of the BOKA project. The overview: Middle-sized communities, in particular, would have a difficult time with new "arena-like" projects and would probably see much red ink when they were completed.
Boy, was I wrong!
The BOK Center is among the most successful young facilities of its kind anywhere in the Country and is a signal driver for downtown Tulsa still surprising reanimation. It's easy to be wrong about big things -- large "futures" initiatives for T-Town and the metro. So what I'm conveying here should be taken with a big ole raft of salt.
As readers know, the Tulsa County Commission has slated November 6 for a vote on a huge $747 million metro improvement package that boosters are calling Vision2 (V2). The effort has two big elements: an over $360 million quality-of-life package -- one that hopefully will shaped by a forthcoming round of aggressive, citizen suggestions on specific projects. The quality-of-life package is needed (the Tulsa area has an over $7 billion approved improvement project backlog) -- especially if we get high quality/high impact and responsive projects from the planned public meeting.
An historic aerospace development package -- with a $344 million price tag, makes up the other big part of the behemoth V2 initiative.
I have a passel of concerns about the "aero" package.
As even occasional readers of this column may know, I am a fervent, unapologetic advocate for an aggressive technology "push track" that might dramatically improve Tulsa's mid run economic trajectory. This is a path and the strategies that might yield lots of new high wage technology/advanced industrial jobs and make us appreciably more competitive -- nationally and internationally.
On its face, the new aero package appears to have that potential. And I believe that Metro Chamber CEO Mike Neal and his economic development chief Jim Fram -- the prime architects of V2/aero package, are among the hardest working, most aggressive economic development pros in Tulsa's history. And they've had good success. Tulsa's forthcoming downtown pops museum is a grand example.
But here's the big question: Will our huge aero package, one designed to upgrade and modernize the aging hanger/maintenance operation/repair enclave at Tulsa's airport campus -- and one heavily shaped by the needs of a small group of tenant/companies already in these publicly owned facilities, take Tulsa aerospace to the next step?
Does the continuing trauma of a bankrupt, rapidly morphing American Airlines -- with thousands of jobs on the line -- really require a fast track package?
How does the increasing likelihood of a US Airways takeover of American Airlines alter the City's/Chamber's calculus on the proposed aerospace package?
A part of Tulsa's current aero gambit echoes the intensifying struggle by Samsung, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Dell, and Google to catch up to Apple Inc. Apple has the lead because they audaciously re-imagined the smart phone and the mobile/tablet space -- stuff that is increasingly seen as the future of computing. And Apple did so despite feverish warnings that these "bet the company" moves might be suicidal.
My reading of city development/strategic planning in early 21st century America: Any community that seeks extraordinary results has to take a shot at something vastly different -- something risky. A strategy that requires outsized political leadership, lots of moxie and a brave citizenry. Tulsa can be, and sometimes has been, that place.
From what we've seen so far, the V2/aero package doesn't have this heft.
I hate opposing something without proffering an alternative -- even when (as in this instance) the other path can't be put in play just now. So, here is a sketch of what we could do: These options are a mix of consults with friends in planning, technology and strategy and many months of study -- these ideas are elaborated on in earlier Cityscape pieces:
--An aerospace "accelerator." The project would give small and large companies and university/private teams a rich environment for exploring new products, services, concepts in aviation and to chance to pilot emerging markets for repair, maintenance and engineering systems. Here in Tulsa, we have the Forge: Sean Griffin's/Tulsa Young Professionals' downtown biz accelerator. Imagine something like it on steroids with an an intense aerospace/advance manufacturing focus;
--An "all points" competition. We ask the world -- firms in our region, Tulsa-based companies, ventures that have national scope, university related teams etc. to propose tangible aerospace/advanced manufacturing projects. This would mean on the ground/in our metro efforts, that these folks would execute/operate with our help and funding. A "Lindbergh II" competition could be a "big bang" with powerful development paths and supplement our existing worker/firm aerospace ecology.
The Come Down
I'm alienated (and betting I'm not alone) by the "closed shop" character of the process that yielded the aero package.
While running a more transparent effort may have complicated the hell out of the aero project effort and pushed away some companies that we'd like to have at the party, it is hard to imagine a more closed, black box process for a public project. And my concerns don't come from a fear of "all things Chamber" or an anti-business animus. They come from that good ole American desire to be consulted as a citizen on a "critical path" for the place you care about deeply -- the spot you call home.
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