I have lived in Tulsa for about 1/3 of the last century. When I first came here in 1969 to work for the former Sunray DX Oil Company Tulsa was still the beneficiary of the factors that made it a very successful city. Sunray DX disappeared into Sun Oil Company and has slowly disappeared from the Tulsa scene like a Cheshire cat except for the Sun Oil refinery.
I left Tulsa after a year with Sun Oil and went to law school out of state but returned in 1976 thinking that the oil boom would last forever. My decision to live in Tulsa was a good one and I have had a good life. I no longer actively practice law but I seem to work 14 hours a day. I live downtown and own and operate two legal service-related companies that are also located downtown.
For the last year or so, I have been meeting on a regular basis with a group of downtown property and business owners to discuss what is wrong with Downtown Tulsa and to develop proposed change that might reverse Downtown Tulsa's decades long decline as Tulsa's central business district.
When Bill LaFortune was elected Mayor, he held a number of meetings at which futurists, urban planners, policy wonks and ordinary cities were invited to engage in the formulation of plans for insuring the future success of our City. It became evident to me that Tulsa was a successful City through most of the last 100 years because of the coalescence of a number of conditions.
They were the discovery of the Glen Pool Oil Field southwest of the city, the convergence of several railroads near downtown and the construction of Spavinaw Lake and associated public improvements that gave Tulsa all the water that it needed to grow in response to demand.
Finally, Tulsa was blessed with a number of really unique private business men and public benefactors including Phillips, Skelly, LaFortune, Warren, Gilcrease and others. Using the wealth that they derived from the conditions that existed in northeastern Oklahoma, they literally built a city state that did not look to or expect much from the State of Oklahoma.
They built hospitals, parks, a university and other public and private improvements that made Tulsa a wealthy city in a not so wealthy state.
At one time, Tulsa was the largest city in the United States without a degree granting public university, without a public hospital and without free public access to the Interstate Highway System. Tulsa was so rich that it could literally thrive without what most communities considered to be essential to be successful. Tulsa was a smug rich white collar town, it was the Oil Capital of the World.
Nothing lasts forever and the conditions that made Tulsa what it was did not last forever. First, the oil began to run out. Second, railroads began to run out. Third, the men who gave away their money to the public good died.
While Tulsa was successful at getting railroads to intersect here it was not successful when it came to getting Interstate Highways. Tulsa got I-44 and Oklahoma City got I-44, I-40 and I-35. The economic advantage of being the state capital and the intersection of three major Interstate Highways literally guaranteed that Oklahoma City would surpass Tulsa as Oklahoma's major city and it has.
What came out of Mayor LaFortune's conferences was Vision 2025. I voted for Vision 2025 but I did not and do not believe that the taxes that will be collected and the public improvements that will be built with those taxes will make Tulsa a great place in 2025, when I will be 82, assuming that I am not pushing up daisies in some grave yard by then.
Lord John Maynard Keynes once said that in the long run, we are all dead. As a lawyer and business man, there is no long run for me downtown. If it isn't happening tomorrow figuratively speaking, it isn't happening. I want change now not 20 years from now. I want to fix Downtown Tulsa right now not tomorrow.
There is no question that Downtown Tulsa has not been a competitive retail, commercial or residential part of our city for decades. The modern shopping center and the automobile killed downtown. The ability of about everyone to get in a car and drive to a shopping center that was more convenient and that provided a more pleasant shopping experience after the Second World War slowly but surely caused almost all the retail business to close and move to the suburbs.
The zoning ordinances adopted by city planners made it more convenient to live and shop near 71st and Memorial rather than 7th and Main with the result that the retail center of Tulsa is no longer downtown. When Woodland Hills opened in March of 1976, what was left of Downtown Tulsa was as good as dead. The death of Downtown Tulsa had already been happening for 30 years and has continued over the last 30 years. There are, for all practical purposes, no significant retail sales in Downtown Tulsa today with the exception of Home Depot, a big box store operated like a shopping center, i.e., easy in and out with free parking.
Is all hope lost? Can Downtown Tulsa be resurrected? Should you care? The answers to these questions, in my opinion, are "No", "Yes" and "Yes" if the way Downtown Tulsa has worked for the last six decades is fundamentally changed and advantage is taken of a technology that is already located downtown but is not being fully utilized.
The City needs to make it easier to get downtown to do business than it is to get competing parts of the City. For starters, get rid of the one way streets and get rid of the parking meters. Everyone hates both. No one would try to operate a shopping center that has two essential characteristics that every shopper hates.
If Utica Square, Promenade or Woodland Hills were surrounded by one way streets that were maze like to navigate and then extracted tribute from shoppers as a condition of parking their cars while shopping they would be less attractive places to go to buy stuff.
The way the City has insisted upon operating and managing our downtown streets has made and continues to make Downtown Tulsa on uncompetitive retail and commercial venue. Nothing that any business or property owner can do has been able to overcome the disadvantage that the City imposes on Downtown Tulsa.
No matter how much lipstick the City puts on "our downtown pig" in the form of bricked sidewalks, park benches, etc. will not make it anything other than a pig. Unfortunately, after a year or more of talking about the changes that many others and I believe need to be made to Downtown Tulsa, nothing has been done to make it a more convenient place to work, live and play.
Assuming that there is nothing that any downtown property or business owner can do to make the City change the way Downtown Tulsa operates from a retail perspective, is it possible to make buildings competitive for commercial use? I think the answer is "Yes" but it requires a change in City policies and an investment in infrastructure.
The core of Downtown Tulsa (3rd Street to 7th Street and Cheyenne to Cincinnati) contains one of the highest concentrations of office space in the City. Unfortunately, the downtown Tulsa commercial office market is about as dead as the downtown retail market. The physical, functional and economic depreciation of the downtown buildings combined with the way the City insists on operating Downtown Tulsa guarantees that the vacancy rates downtown will continue to go up in the future unless something is done to make the buildings competitive.
The City is currently spending millions in taxes to rebuild the streets and sidewalks downtown. The process of reconstructing the downtown streets presents an opportunity to incorporate a new technology into our downtown that might just make the downtown buildings highly competitive again.
Just like Tulsa's City Fathers who were able to make Tulsa more competitive by getting five railroads to converge within a mile or so of one another a hundred years ago, our City Fathers and Mothers can facilitate access to the fiber optic telecommunications cables that converge in Downtown Tulsa.
There is enough fiber optic telecommunications capacity buried under our downtown streets and sidewalks to supply the telecommunications needs to the world but the cables not readily and economically available to the buildings. The building in which my businesses are located is just six inches from a major fiber optic cable. I was able to convince the owner to spend the money to attach the building to the cable and make it available to me and the other tenants at highly competitive prices. As a result, my company is able to communicate with the world better for less. What is true of the building in which I office is not true for other buildings downtown including the building in which I live. That is unfortunately because lack of access to competitive telecommunications services represents a competitive disadvantage to any business.
It became evident to my landlord and me that when it came to access to fiber optic communications technology downtown that there was only one supplier. What was most telling was a statement by one company from whom I had been buying communications services that it was not willing or able to provide fiber optic communications services to Downtown Tulsa because the City's policies regarding the installation of fiber optic cables downtown made it uneconomical for it to do business downtown.
Another had cable two blocks north and two blocks south but the cost of installing a cable to the building was prohibitively expensive. The "big dog" in the telecommunications arena, AT&T, was completely out of the park price wise. My building contracted with the company that controlled the cable six inches from the building and I got what I wanted, i.e. a big cheap broadband pipe to the Internet.
So, what am I suggesting be done, you may ask? I suggest that the City should install conduit in the streets and sidewalks for use by telecommunications companies to facilitate the delivery of broadband telecommunications services to the downtown buildings and then make block grant funds available to the buildings to cover the cost of connecting the buildings to the world telecommunications network.
A few years ago people in India began answering the telephone when we called customer service numbers. Few people with whom I have discussed the issue seem to know why all of a sudden people in India began to answer our phone calls. The answer is: "fiber optic telecommunications".
A company called Global Crossing built a fiber optic cable around the world in a misguided belief that it would make a ton of money. It did not do so but what it did do was make it as inexpensive to call Bangalore as it is call Bangor.
India has always had a large, inexpensive English dialect speaking work force but it much too expensive to have them answer the phone until Global Crossing put a fiber optic cable right through the middle of Bangalore. Suddenly the Indians, who suffered from a competitive disadvantage, had a competitive advantage and they took advantage of it.
A competitive advantage lies within the grasp of Downtown Tulsa but it needs the help of the City to turn a potential advantage into a real advantage. Using some of the City's tax revenues to install public infrastructure in our downtown streets to facilitate access to the telecommunications capacity already buried under our downtown streets for use by all interested telecommunications providers would give our downtown buildings a competitive advantage.
Adding community block grant money to the equation would make it easy for the building owners to connect their tenants to the outside world via the fiber cables that lie dark under some of the streets.
Another example of how changing technology can give a business or property owner an economic advantage can be seen at Central Park in Downtown Tulsa. My wife and I live at Central Park and I am on the Board of Directors of the largest condominium association in Oklahoma.
With nearly 400 hundred homes, Central Park is like a small town located in Downtown Tulsa. I estimated that 75 percent of the homeowners and residents at Central Park were paying an average of $30 a month for Internet access at an annual cost of more than $100,000.
The Association was paying nearly a thousand dollars a month for plain old telephone lines and a DSL circuit. Central Park is currently installing T-1s and associated wireless routers and other equipment that will make it possible for everyone who lives at Central Park to access the Internet for free for about what cost the Association to supply its telecommunications needs. The savings to the each owner will be about $500 a year.
Facilitating access to and use of broadband telecommunications services would give all of Downtown Tulsa a competitive economic advantage and would cost essentially nothing. The questions is: "Are our leaders willing or interested in changing Downtown Tulsa so that it once again becomes a competitive place to work, live and play?"
If the answer is "No" then Downtown Tulsa will keep on doing what it has been doing for the last 50 or 60 years, dieing. The city leaders and boosters who buried the car in the time capsule 50 years ago had high hopes for Tulsa's future. The people involved in planning the future of Tulsa today also have high hopes for the future.
If we do not change Downtown Tulsa so that it works differently than it has for the last 50 years, maybe we should bury a symbolic "dead horse" in the time capsule and see if there is anyone left to dig it up in another 50 years.
What ever is done, I will not be around to see the outcome in 50 years because, you see, that will be in the long run and I will be dead.
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