Let's all shout a hearty "heave ho" to Heavenly Hospitality. The Arizona company has packed up its ridiculous set of demands and left town. Heavenly Hospitality submitted the lone proposal to the Tulsa Development Authority to redevelop the block just east of the new arena.
It was an interesting mixed use plan centered around an upscale hotel, but the plan stipulated a number of conditions, many of them beyond the power of the City of Tulsa to bring about or at least unreasonable: condemnation of the remainder of the block (unconstitutional in Oklahoma), renovation or demolition of the Wright Building and the Downtowner Motel (home to Coney Island), and some amount of public subsidy.
The biggest sticking point was the Tulsa Transit station a block south. Heavenly Hospitality's head, Larry Dalton, considers the bus station a blight on the area; City Hall regards it as an asset. The art deco building, designed by the Dewberry Group, was built with federal funds in the late '90s, and it's still in good shape. The current location is convenient for downtown workers and for anyone visiting city, county, state, and federal offices.
Dalton's inordinate fear of public transit reminds me of the comments of the owner of Southroads Shopping Center back in 1997, when Tulsa Transit very sensibly proposed a bus transfer station in the midst of one of Tulsa's busiest retail hubs. (If you put the bus station where people need and want to go, more people will ride the bus.) He was afraid that criminals would take the bus to Southroads, commit crimes, then escape by bus. A crook would have a better chance of a clean getaway if he thumbed a ride in Paul Tay's bike basket.
Heavenly Hospitality's departure probably saved Tulsa's taxpayers about $20 million dollars. A study of downtown's hotel market estimated a "feasibility gap" of $16.5 to $22 million for an upscale full-service hotel like the one proposed by Heavenly Hospitality -- a gap between what the place would cost to build and its market value when completed, a gap that a developer would expect you and me to make up.
A business-class hotel, like a Hampton Inn, would be better suited to the type of visitor the arena and convention center will draw. The estimated feasibility gap for such a hotel is much smaller -- zero to $3 million. And although most Hamptons are suburban, they've done some very attractive urban infill projects in places like Savannah, Georgia, and Buffalo, New York
Whether upscale or mid-scale, we don't need a new downtown hotel badly enough to subsidize it and drive down rates for its competition. There are already three full-service hotels downtown, one of them directly connected to the convention center. There are plenty of other hotels a short drive away which can accommodate conventions and the handful of arena events that will draw out-of-town visitors. When demand drives occupancy rates high enough, someone will build a new hotel downtown.
Open Mouth, Insert Foot
Speaking of downtown hotels, Sunday's edition of the local monopoly daily newspaper carried a feature story comparing the Skirvin Hotel restoration in Oklahoma City with the ongoing restoration of Tulsa's historic Mayo Hotel. The story, by business reporter Tom Droege, was prominently featured on the front page of the local section. There was a curious subtext to it.
On the surface, the story is about what it took to bring back Oklahoma City's landmark hotel and what lessons Tulsa can learn from their experience. But the tone of the story seems intended to pour cold water on the Snyder family's plans for the Mayo.
For example: After noting that the conversion of seven upper floors of the hotel into lofts will receive nearly $5 million in Vision 2025 funds for downtown residential development, Droege writes, "But several earlier promised redevelopments of the hotel have come and gone without much progress. The building has been essentially empty since 1981."
That dismissive paragraph overlooks the fact that those earlier redevelopments never had this kind of funding already committed. The "essentially empty" slam ignores the steady progress that the Snyders have made since buying the building five years ago. Once again the Mayo is a place where Tulsans make memories -- wedding receptions, black tie dinners, even one of the Governor's Inaugural Galas. The Snyders have demonstrated the kind of patience and persistence needed for a complex and long-term process.
Sunday's story is all the stranger because the same paper published a very positive story and follow-up editorial about the Mayo just a month ago.
Maybe I'm reading too much into this, but my antennae are up.
Some Accountability, Please
Fred Perry and John Smaligo have taken their seats on the County Commission and already there are positive signs of change. Last week, Perry went public with his opposition to fellow Commissioner Randi Miller's proposal to create a river development authority.
In a press release, Perry said, "The taxpayers and voters elected us, and other elected officials in Tulsa County, to make the hard decisions and I am confident, from comments by many citizens, that they don't want us to relinquish any of that decision making to non-elected, appointed members of an authority no matter how competent the individuals might be."
The argument often made in favor of unelected authorities is that some decisions are too important for politics. But putting a decision in the hands of a "blue ribbon panel" doesn't make the process any less political. It just hides the political aspects of the decision from view and shields the decision makers from public accountability.
Elected officials can use these appointed authorities, boards, and commissions to pass the buck on tough decisions. In 2003, when the Dialog Visioning "leadership team" presented the County Commission with its recommendations for a sales tax package, six of the nine Tulsa City Councilors expressed support for putting the arena on the ballot as a separate item, to stand or fall on its own.
The commissioners at the time (Bob Dick, Wilbert Collins, and Miller) had the authority to decide the structure of the ballot, but they rubber-stamped the leadership team's recommendation. Dick and Collins both stated that they had pledged to support whatever the unelected body recommended, without modification. They ceded their decision-making power to people who would never be held accountable for their decisions on the public's behalf.
If it involves county funds or county facilities, the County Commissioners, the people who have to face the voters, ought to be collecting advice, weighing the possibilities, and making the decisions. I'm pleased, but not surprised, to see that Fred Perry understands that making decisions is why we pay him and his colleagues the big bucks.
I'm pleased, too, to see that all three commissioners support a performance audit on county government. While former Mayor Bill LaFortune commissioned a similar study looking for city government efficiency improvements, few of the recommendations were implemented and even fewer were promptly put into place. I'm hopeful that these County Commissioners will follow through. City civil service rules, which put LaFortune somewhat at the mercy of department heads that he couldn't replace, didn't make it easy to win support for needed changes. The county doesn't have civil service and doesn't have that obstacle.
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