Ever since the current river development proposal was firmed up and made public mid-June to spruce up the Arkansas River at a cost to taxpayers of $282 million, Tulsa County Commissioner Randi Miller has consistently promised that Tulsans will reap tenfold in economic benefits whatever they sow in taxes for the project.
It just so happens, if the Tulsa Metro Chamber's math checks out, she's right on the money.
"The $786 million invested in the Arkansas River during a seven-year span will spur the creation of more than 9,450 jobs and income of $1.1 billion for a total economic impact of $2.8 billion by 2014," said Robert Ball, the Chamber's economic research manager.
His comments came first at a press conference last Monday with Miller, Mayor Kathy Taylor and QuikTrip Head Honcho and current Chamber Prez Chet Cadieux in tow for support and corroboration as the Chamber announced its endorsement of the proposed river tax, and then the next day at a meeting with members of the City Council.
Ball and Chamber Prez/CEO Mike Neal sat in the same seats occupied a week earlier by Miller and the crafty philanthropist George Kaiser as they made their own pitch to the Council for the river development plan while the city leaders considered a resolution to oppose the tax, which they voted 6-3 against (see last week's City article, "Dog and Pony Show," for full details).
Ball and Neal explained to councilors that the $282 million from the seven-year 0.4 percent sales tax they hope Tulsa County voters approve on Oct. 9 would bring a return of $2.8 billion by the time the tax period ends.
Using brightly colored pie charts and a healthy amount of enthusiasm, they told councilors that the $282 million (minus $57 million in land acquisition costs) plus the $111 million in private donations already offered by Kaiser and others would attract another $450 million in private investment, amounting to a total of $786 million in capital investment.
It's a figure that pales in comparison to the recently announced $1 billion private investment plan by the River District Development Group (see "City Updates," Page ) already committed to river development in Jenks.
This is the same group that has been courting the Tulsa Drillers as an anchor to the project, having prompted Tulsa Mayor Kathy Taylor to begin all of a sudden giving more love to the city's AA baseball team, which many influential Tulsans consider an essential piece to the downtown redevelopment puzzle.
But back to the Tulsa plan. That $786 million public/private combo would theoretically multiply into an economic impact of almost $1.5 billion, Ball said, which would include $1.1 billion in labor income for 9,450 construction jobs over the seven years.
The economist said another $1.3 billion from the resultant mixed retail and entertainment development would amount to a total economic impact of $2.8 billion by 2014.
In Need of An Antacid
While the councilors got to take the delicious pie charts home with them, the same wasn't true of the enthusiasm Ball and Neal came to dispense--at least not for everyone.
"I really didn't understand how they arrived at the money and employment numbers," Councilor Bill Christiansen later told UTW.
Since the employment figure volunteered by Ball related to temporary jobs, the councilor asked, "At the end of the day when the taxes are spent and the projects are completed, how many permanent jobs will there be?"
Ball said, using "relationships that developed under the (Oklahoma City) MAPS (project)" as a model, about 9,500 permanent jobs would result from river development.
"It would probably be advantageous if there were a simple way to explain all that to the electorate so voters can understand," Christiansen told Ball and Neal at the conclusion of the presentation.
Since the $2.8 billion return is the top selling point for the river tax, UTW later contacted Ball for that "simple explanation" of how he arrived at that impressive number.
The initial capital investment figure is foundational to everything else, so Ball was asked how he came up with the $450 million in private investment that he added to the public funding and private donations.
"Through conversations with some developers," he answered.
He said he couldn't divulge exactly which developers, but that none had committed any specific amount of money for any particular development projects along the river.
"They were somewhat casual conversations," Ball explained.
"But, why wouldn't they want to develop?
We've already got Riverwalk Crossing," he added.
During the City Council presentation, Neal had emphasized that the $450 million is "an extremely, extremely, extremely conservative number."
Ball told UTW that he utilized the IMPLAN economic analysis model, created by the Stillwater, Minn.-based IMPLAN Group, to calculate the economic impact of that estimated $786 million investment.
"There are all kinds of different numbers out there from several different sources, and both sides would do well to keep it as simple as possible," Councilor Rick Westcott commented to UTW.
"The Metro Chamber has done a lot of research and there will be people who will try to pick apart their numbers--if they're accurate, they'll stand up to scrutiny," he added.
The councilor has previously stated that, after researching the issue, he's making an exception to his usual default philosophical opposition to tax increases by supporting the river tax.
"I look at this as an infrastructure project, and that's what government is supposed to do--this plan is a good public policy and will ultimately lead to an increase in sales tax revenue for the city, which will ultimately be more money for street repair and for police and all the other things people complain about," he said.
Following last week's Chamber presentation, Westcott said the 10-to-one return promised by Ball is "pretty impressive."
"If people take a look at this, they're going to find them persuasive--it's more than I envisioned," he said.
Christiansen, though, is holding his enthusiasm in abeyance.
He told UTW that he's planning to ask Ball and other Chamber representatives back for the next City Council committee meeting to explain their calculations in layman's terms.
"Those numbers are so out there, I want to be sure that what they're saying is really going to happen," he said.
"If that's the case, though--that's wonderful," Christiansen also said, adding that "if" is the operative word.
"I think, whatever numbers there are, we need to give the voters of Tulsa all the information," he added.
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