At a time when the headlines (and this column) have been dominated by a plan to raise taxes by more than half a billion dollars, there was news recently from a group of Tulsans trying to figure out the best way to spend billions of dollars in private money.
To refresh your memory, Step Up Tulsa was a community planning effort put together by a collection of Tulsa's philanthropists (the Funders' Roundtable) and staffed by the Tulsa Community Foundation, which is the largest community foundation in America, with assets of more than $2 billion. The notion behind Step Up Tulsa is that this massive amount of money is set aside to benefit the people of Tulsa and environs. The committees of "stakeholders" were given the job of finding the most strategic ways to invest these private dollars for maximum public benefit.
Back in April, I attended a Step Up Tulsa meeting to see the presentation of plans for the five areas that were targeted by the group. I came away underwhelmed. The plans lacked specifics, and they reflected the narrow perspective of the "stakeholders," who predominantly came from the government, education, and non-profit social service sectors.
("Stakeholders" is a funny term to use for the hundred or so who participated in the process. The true number of stakeholders in a process like this is about 800,000 -- the number of people in the Tulsa metro area.)
Over the course of the summer, the April plans were relabeled "preliminary," and in September a set of business plans, complete with cost estimates, were released. (You can find them online at http://www.stepuptulsa.com/business_plans.asp)
I can't comment on every aspect of these plans in a single column, but here are a few thoughts on the ideas that grabbed my attention . . .
There's much to like in the economic development plan. An entrepreneurship center, proposed as part of an "Innovation Institute," would provide training for entrepreneurs in how to convert a great idea into a viable business.
A new, small business owner has a steep learning curve employment law, tax law, corporate law, contracts, marketing, financing, competitive bidding all on top of developing a product or service. A place where budding entrepreneurs can learn sound business practices from those who have gone before could the increase the number of small businesses that survive to maturity.
Another great idea is the Community Innovation Fund, a $30 million private fund to finance entrepreneurial ventures. While there's a lot of money floating around Tulsa, it tends to be invested in well-known, long-established industries. That's fine, but it doesn't help Tulsa stay on the cutting edge of innovation.
It's important to connect Tulsa's idea generators with the funds that can help realize those ideas. It's a huge loss to Tulsa when our own innovators have to leave town to find funding.
It's important, too, that the fund be private money, privately managed. If government gets involved, the money is likely to be wasted on people with mediocre ideas but great political connections.
I was a bit concerned to read that management of the fund would be contracted out. I hope they aren't planning to let the Tulsa Metro Chamber handle it.
The folks at the Chamber's economic development department understand call centers and factories, but they don't get high-tech or small business.
There are also some worthwhile and well-thought-out ideas in the sense of place plan. The topic of land-use planning was missing in the committee's April report, but it is now at the top of the agenda.
The City of Tulsa is already pursuing a new Comprehensive Plan to replace the patched and threadbare 1970s plan still in effect; Step Up Tulsa wants to be sure the City has the resources to bring in top land-use planners and to include as much citizen input as possible.
(Wouldn't it be cool to use Web 2.0 technologies -- the collaborative networking tools that undergird sites like Wikipedia to allow every Tulsan to propose or comment on specific ideas for inclusion in the Comprehensive Plan?)
Tulsa's sense of uniqueness would be enhanced by protecting our historic buildings and neighborhoods, while encouraging compatible infill development, particularly infill that helps reconnect the pieces of our urban core, torn asunder by urban renewal, expressway building, and demolition for surface parking.
Tulsa's centers of activity exist in isolation. You might visit one and never know that something else of interest is a few blocks away. Downtown is cut off from nearby neighborhoods and the river by the Inner Dispersal Loop. The lack of connection prevents the development of the synergy that you find in a healthy city.
The "sense of place" plan rightly mentions the importance of reestablishing these connections, but actually seems less specific than it was in April. For example, the idea of 6th Street as a link between OSU-Tulsa and TU appears to have been dropped altogether.
Closely related to a sense of place is the idea of pride in Tulsa, and Step Up Tulsa's pride committee wisely recommends making Tulsa history a part of the local school curriculum.
There's a mention, too, of cultural tourism, which takes a "long tail" approach to attracting visitors not by creating blockbuster mass-appeal attractions, but by presenting our distinctive local history to make it accessible to tourists who are passionate about niche topics western swing music, the oil boom, Oklahoma's black towns.
Often, if a niche attraction is well done and marketed attractively, it can appeal to a broader audience than people interested in the topic at hand. (Have you ever stayed tuned to a History Channel program about a topic you knew nothing about, just because they told the story in a compelling way?)
Creating cultural tourism attractions would not only draw visitors but would give Tulsans a sense of what makes our city and our part of Oklahoma special. In recent years, Tulsa has been promoted as an island of sophistication in a morass of mediocrity.
That approach not only fails to draw international visitors Europeans can see opera and ballet at home; they want to come to Oklahoma to see cowboys, Indians, oil men, faith healers, and tornadoes it gives Tulsans the uneasy feeling that our city is only "nearly as good as" some other place, rather than a great place in its own right.
The conclusions in the education and health plans are disappointing but not unexpected, given the backgrounds of the participants. These plans come down to the fulfillment of a long-time dream of the social services industry: Turn public schools into one-stop shopping for cradle-to-college child care, psychiatry, "reproductive services," and parental re-education with maybe a little bit of reading, writing, and arithmetic thrown in.
The root cause, underlying the "root causes" that they identify, is the breakdown of community, as expressed in private institutions like the nuclear family, the extended family, churches, and neighborhoods. These are the time-tested means of transmitting knowledge, values, and wisdom and providing mutual aid and support, but they have been damaged by social and economic forces and government policies.
One way to help rebuild those networks would be to encourage young families to become faithful members of a local church. Beyond the moral and spiritual aspects of being part of a church, the social benefits are concrete.
To name just a few: Instead of having to figure parenthood out on their own, new parents can learn from older couples and share experiences with other young couples. Many churches have baby showers or bring meals for families with new babies, and often there's an informal hand-me-down network, circulating outgrown clothing and equipment to those who need it.
Preschool children who attend Sunday School are exposed to classroom structure and learn how to play nice with other children, helping to prepare them for the school classroom. And there's positive peer pressure, an informal sense of accountability to live responsibly.
Government can't and shouldn't get involved in rebuilding extended families or reconnecting families to churches. But a privately-funded organization doesn't have those restrictions. Rather than trying to reshape government as a substitute for family and community, a role for which it is ill-suited, private funds could help reconnect individuals to these private community institutions, these "little platoons," as Edmund Burke called them.
There is a precedent: Tulsa philanthropist Charles Schusterman was a leader and major donor to a nationwide effort (http://www.starsynagogues.org) to help reconnect Jewish families and individuals to the community of the synagogue.
It's a wonderful thing to have a couple of a billion dollars to spend to make your city a better place. I would hate to see the opportunity wasted by using this private money as a lever to shift the taxpayers of Tulsa in a particular direction, rather than using it to do bold things that public funds can't and shouldn't do.
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