The proposed East End downtown development might be moving ahead, but that development could be far, far from what was originally planned.
Instead of a bigger, better, hipper version of Cherry St. or Brookside situated around a baseball stadium as promised, downtown Tulsans could instead be looking forward to having just another Wal-Mart in their backyard.
At the moment, Wal-Mart's precise designs on the area are unclear -- whether a Supercenter, Sam's Club or Neighborhood Grocery, or all or some of the above, or a smaller, less-obtrusive urban-style store is in the works has yet to be determined.
At present, though, according to anonymous sources, Wal-Mart has contracted for land in the East End, but nothing has been closed as of yet.
No one has confirmed Wal-Mart's designs in the area, though Urban Tulsa Weekly Publisher Keith Skrzypczak suggested the possibility as the East End began searching for direction late last autumn and developers began throwing around the idea of buying up fallow land for over the top, uber-premium prices. Landlords in the area were salivating over the prospects.
But no one has exactly denied the mega-retailer's involvement, either.
"I just can't comment on that at this time," said Bill White who, along with the Nordam Group, owns most of the land in question.
Representatives of Nordam did not return telephone calls.
"Currently, we are aware of a site in downtown Tulsa that developers are working on," but no plans have been finalized, said Wal-Mart spokeswoman Angela Stoner.
"Mum" is also the word from Mayor Kathy Taylor's office on Wal-Mart's downtown development plans.
Kimberly MacLeod, the mayor's press secretary, and Don Himelfarb, director of the city's Economic Development and Real Estate Development Division, both said the notion of Wal-Mart setting up shop downtown "appears to be speculative."
However, Himelfarb acknowledged that Tom Seay of Seay Company, a Bentonville, Ark.-based development company, has pitched a plan for the area.
Seay was formerly Wal-Mart's executive vice president for real estate and construction and has brokered several development deals for the retail giant since creating his own development company, including stores in Tulsa.
"That's news to me," Himelfarb said about Seay's ties to Wal-Mart, and said the retailer's name never came up in discussions with Seay.
"We've seen and met with both developers and they've walked us through their presentations and either one of them would be spectacular, but they'd be different, but not vastly so," said Himelfarb.
The other developer to which he referred is Tim Kissler, principal of Global Development Partners, who announced his company's intentions for the area last August. If downtown Tulsa becomes the next province of the Walton Empire, though, it could possibly spell the demise of the East End project as Kissler originally presented it.
But to big time developers, big money is better than no money at all.
Water Under the 6th St. Bridge
"Our plans call for the creation of both a destination entertainment and retail venue, along with a significant residential component to augment the community. The entertainment component is proposed to be anchored by a new baseball stadium, and we are in negotiations with the Tulsa Drillers for a long-term lease of the facility," said Kissler when he publicly unveiled his company's plans last summer.
"We propose to bring a variety of retail options to Tulsa, including dining, clothing and specialty shops, along with the necessities of life, such as a grocery store, pharmacy, coffee shops, banks and other elements to create a neighborhood. Local retailers will be welcomed," he continued.
However, if Wal-Mart develops within the 34-acre, 14-block stretch of land on which Global's sites are set, there might not be enough room left in the area for the planned baseball stadium that was to serve as the nucleus for the mixed-use facilities, sources said.
The same anonymous source said some retailers might be daunted by the prospect of competing with the mega-retailer.
Apparently, not all businesses would be intimidated by the mega-retailer, as Wal-Mart coexists with other retailers at other locations, but the "cool factor" of the baseball stadium would be nixed, the source said.
Drillers owner Chuck Lamson said he has attempted to contact representatives of Global Development Partners since learning of Wal-Mart's involvement, but his telephone calls had not been returned at the time of this writing.
"Obviously, it looks like the Global Development situation is not going to happen in that area, but that's not a done deal until (Wal-Mart) has control of the land," he said.
However, Lamson said he remains "optimistic" about having a baseball stadium downtown and is still "discussing options" with the City of Tulsa.
The first hitch in GDP's plans came in December when the Nordam Group filed a breach of contract suit against Tulsa Partners I LLC, GDP's local affiliate. Tulsa Partners had a purchase agreement with Nordam but asked for three extensions of its closing date, agreeing to pay an earnest into escrow for each extension.
The lawsuit has since been resolved, but the delay opened a window through which other prospective developers entered to bid; namely, Wal-Mart.
While he declined to directly comment on Wal-Mart playing in his prospective ballpark (so to speak), Kissler said, "I'm still very interested in the project. I'd love to do it and we're continuing to analyze our options."
If Kissler's original designs for the land somehow still come to pass, he said stadium and infrastructure construction would create 655 jobs, and another 2,200 jobs would result from construction of the mixed-use facilities. When everything is up-and-running, he said about 2,200 permanent office, retail, restaurant and hotel jobs would result.
Stoner gave no precise figures for construction jobs that would result if Wal-Mart set up shop, but said it would depend on which contractors and subcontractors won the bid.
The average pay for full-time Wal-Mart employees in Oklahoma is $9.91 per hour, according to the company's website.
Since Wal-Mart's exact plans are still fuzzy, the precise number of jobs to result is equally iffy. However, on average, a Wal-Mart Discount Store employs 225 people, a Supercenter 350-400 people, a Neighborhood Market 95 and a Sam's Club 160-175, Stoner said.
While Stoner said Wal-Mart is known to plant Supercenters in urban markets, word on the street is that it's the lesser-known Urban Market that developers have in mind for downtown Tulsa.
Stoner said specimens of Wal-Mart Urban Markets can be found in Chicago, Little Rock, Georgia, Florida and scattered sporadically across other areas of the country, but their precise design, size and workforce vary from location to location, as do the kinds of development that ensue around them.
"It really depends on what a community is looking for," she said. "We take it market by market, site by site, as we grow across the country."
"I've seen urban Wal-Marts; they were really nicely done," said Carl Bracy, chairman of the Tulsa Development Authority.
While he said the project in question is outside of his arena of influence, as the Tulsa Development Authority only has a say in what happens on public land, Bracy said a Wal-Mart in downtown Tulsa would be a tremendous engine for development in the area.
"I'm not putting my support for or against Wal-Mart," he qualified. "There are people on both sides of the aisle--some people love Wal-Mart and some people hate Wal-Mart."
While no one would go on record to confirm or deny the retail giant's involvement in the East End, all agreed that, whatever Wal-Mart's designs, they might not ever even make it off the drawing board.
"Over the years, many developers have been in discussions with land owners in the east end but none have materialized," said MacLeod. "We know discussions are ongoing and buyers are looking at opportunities in east end, just as they are looking at opportunities in downtown Tulsa.
"There are no complete or closed transactions that we know of in the East End, but if there were we can not comment or speculate on the details of any private transactions that are not closed and public information."
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