Yes, to spending public dollars from Vision2 to help local companies expand and create jobs. Yes, to purchasing land if it would help attract a specific company.
No, to spending Vision2 dollars for a project like building a business incubator for a specific industry. No, to using Vision2 funds to help most retail projects.
Those answers come from Jim Fram, senior vice president for economic development for the Tulsa Metro Chamber. Using public money culled from sales tax dollars to boost jobs is part of the Vision2 proposal on the ballot Nov. 6. It's included in the proposition that also would set aside $254 million in sales tax dollars to fund airport industrial facility upgrades, with the money raised through an extension of a sales tax hike approved by voters in 2003.
But administering a general economic development fund -- estimated to be roughly $50 million by Vision2 proponents -- poses many thorny questions about what are and are not acceptable uses for the money.
Fram said the chamber has made recommendations to Tulsa County commissioners about how the fund -- which has only a bare bones description in ballot language -- might take shape, his responses above to UTW questions about possible uses for the dollars.
First and foremost, Fram stressed that the proposed fund would be about creating jobs.
"It would be used for job creation and capital investment incentive projects centered around jobs that meet minimum payroll or minimum salary requirements and that are primary jobs," said Fram.
He added that the chamber is recommending salary standards similar to those set in Tulsa's Future, an effort led by the chamber to attract jobs that pay an annual salary of at least $50,000.
Most of the dollars for that initiative come from the private sector, though a city spokeswoman told UTW in July that the city's Economic Development Commission contributed $200,000 to Tulsa's Future in 2011.
The salary recommendation is part of a larger set of recommendations from the chamber to Tulsa County about how funds might be used. Though not yet public, a final version of these recommendations would be a public document, Fram said.
Fram said one key recommendation from the chamber involves the structure of contracts for any allocations made through the proposed Vision2 fund.
If "a company says if you will add overhead bay doors, we'll create 35 new jobs ... we would put that in a contract," Fram said. The idea is that if the jobs created didn't meet contract requirements, so-called "clawback" requirements would kick in as a safeguard of public dollars.
Fram stressed that any and all such contracts would have to first be approved by Tulsa County Commissioners in a public meeting.
While negotiations with companies seeking fund dollars would remain private, Fram said the name of the company would be disclosed before a vote on the contract.
Fram said the nature of the negotiations might involve keeping any company names off documents released in advance of public meetings.
"That would be a lawyer question," Fram said. "Just off the top of my head, my experience in Oklahoma over the last decade or so, they probably wouldn't put the name of the company on the agenda days before the public meeting." After a presentation, it would be up to county commissioners to decide when to vote on any such contract proposal.
Fram said that the chamber wouldn't recommend using the fund for construction of what's known as a "spec" building, a structure built without having a known tenant or occupant in place.
"The primary reason for that is we have private development and private commercial real estate people. ... We don't want to compete with them with public dollars," Fram said.
But the fund might be used to purchase land tied to the specific needs of a company, he said.
"If a company needed a certain amount of acreage that was available to construct a building or to store product on and the result of that would be creation of a set number of jobs and or a large capital investment, they would qualify for that land purchase," Fram said. "But the land would not be given to that company, but would be retained by the Tulsa County Industrial Authority."
Such funds elsewhere shy away from supporting retail projects, with some noting that those projects can potentially take away consumers from local businesses.
Fram said he would not completely rule out the fund supporting a new store venture, but said those jobs tend to be lower-paying and thus would not be the focus of the Vision2 fund. Fram said that, in general, "a job that requires no skill, making a low-end product that pays minimum wage, would not qualify" for assistance from the fund, he said.
Along with questions of how the money will be used come questions about how to best evaluate projects seeking assistance.
Fram said the chamber's own economic development initiatives already identify prospects that might create jobs.
"For example, right now we have about 40 active projects," Fram said. While not all of them would meet the criteria he laid out for Vision2 economic development funds, some would -- and the chamber might "negotiate a potential incentive" with the business prospects.
In an email, Fram also wrote that "any entity" might be involved in project negotiations, noting that "most, if not all, economic development organizations in Tulsa County already have paid staff in place who are very well trained in the area of negotiating."
While he said the chamber will have a role in evaluating projects, he brushed aside a question about possible conflicts of interest.
"We have a staff of 12 people. We are very cautious in what we have stock in and where we have our 401k's," Fram said, adding that the staff sign an "ethics form" as well.
He added: "When we present it to county commissioners, that's in the light of day. It's public, open to anybody to do any level of investigation."
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