The "Vote Yes" campaign is in full, well-financed swing, and the TV and radio airwaves are filled with actors pleading for Tulsa County voters to raise their taxes for $282 million in river projects.
Campaigns in support of previous tax packages for non-essential projects (1997's Tulsa Project, 2000's It's Tulsa's Time, 2003's Vision 2025) have usually had a clear focus, painting a clear picture of the intended beneficiaries of the tax.
For the Tulsa Project and It's Tulsa's Time, the target was the convention and tourism industry. The message in the Vision 2025 campaign was, "We have to do something" for Tulsa's economy, which was hit hard by the 2001-2002 tech crash. (Never mind that 27,000 displaced high tech workers wouldn't benefit from new construction jobs and aircraft assembly jobs.)
The message of the "Our River Yes" campaign seems to have switched focus several times. As one emphasis falls flat, they pick another one.
Is it so we get the $117 million in extra river stuff? If I buy a Branson timeshare, they'll give me a toaster, but I don't need a toaster or a timeshare.
As we discussed last week, it's not for jobs and economic development, and it's not for streets, no matter what that Walter Cronkite look-alike says on the TV ads.
Is it for the children?
Most of the print and TV ads feature young children. Betty Boyd says we should do it for our kids and grandkids.
County Commissioner Randi Miller has told audiences that Tulsa's children need a place to go and have fun. That plea is hard to swallow, seeing how she just got through destroying one such place, leading the charge to evict Bell's Amusement Park from the Tulsa County Fairgrounds.
Speaking of which, the Tulsa State Fair opens this Thursday, and many Tulsans, angry over the Fair Board's eviction of Bell's, are planning to stay away in protest.
That's understandable, but it's hard for some of us to do. For many northeast Oklahoma residents, the Tulsa State Fair is a family tradition spanning generations.
The State Fair is the big event of the year for students involved in FFA and Four-H. As a community institution, the State Fair is bigger than whoever happens to be running it at any given time.
In addition to the obvious -- don't spend money on the Murphy Brothers midway -- here's a homemade idea for those who go to the fair but wish to protest Bell's eviction: Wear bells to the fair. You can buy a big bag of jingles at a craft store for a few dollars. Thread a bunch on a ribbon to wear around your neck. Bring extras to give to friends or fellow fairgoers.
And if you want to make the point explicit, stick a nametag on your shirt with the slogan that's been spotted around town: "No Bell's.
But as valuable as community-wide amenities may be, there's a more urgent need for Tulsa-area children: Local parks, pools, and recreation centers that are fully operational and fully staffed.
Which would be more useful to a young north Tulsa teen in the summer: An open neighborhood pool within walking distance, or a fancy new park along the river that he can't get to because he's not old enough to drive?
Which would be more useful to any family: A nearby park that you can walk or bike to on the spur of the moment to spend a pleasant hour, or a faraway park on the river that requires you to make a day of it?
Well-maintained and well-equipped neighborhood parks would do more to provide children with opportunities for outdoor play, would do more to knit neighborhoods together than some major attraction clear across town.
So is the river tax for young professionals?
In a recent letter to the daily paper, Noah and Monica Roberts scoff at the idea that better streets will attract young professionals to Tulsa: "Hundreds of highly educated and skilled entrepreneurs, physicians and software engineers did not suddenly say to their family members, 'Hey, guys, let's move to Tulsa. They have smooth streets!'"
But would YPs ever say, "Let's move to Tulsa. They have dams, trails, and fountains"? And when was the last time that young adults have deemed anything cool that was built by a government agency?
We're told that this river development effort will make it easier to attract and retain young professionals, and that in turn will create the talent pool necessary to attract new high-tech, high-creativity, high-paying businesses. We are told that young people no longer move to wherever they can find a job. Instead, we should assume that a college grad will pick the city which offers the lifestyle he wants and will move there to look for a job.
For the sake of argument, let's grant that assumption. What kind of qualities do young adults want in a city?
A city with a variety of job opportunities is important. One of the challenges I've seen in attracting young people to Tulsa is this worry: If I come to Tulsa to work for your company, what happens if I don't like the job or the job doesn't like me? Are there other jobs in the same industry there, or will I have to pull up stakes again if things don't work out? In places like the DFW Metroplex or New York City or Silicon Valley, no one doubts that other job opportunities are available. It would help to sell Tulsa if we could document for potential employees that there's a robust job market in their chosen field.
But mostly, young people want a city where they can find other young adults. They're looking for friends with whom they can share this handful of years when they have youth, money, and freedom. And whether they admit it to themselves or not, they're also looking for that one person with whom they can share the rest of their lives.
If that's your aim, you'll be looking for a city with places where young people gather in significant numbers, with opportunities to make new friends.
This last weekend I was in Orlando, Florida, for a workshop. I went downtown on Saturday night, because I had heard that that's where the crowds gather.
Downtown Orlando has shiny new skyscrapers, a basketball arena, and a beautiful 23-acre lake with a fountain. But I didn't find the crowds around any of those. There were only a few people walking the path around Lake Eola, and the sidewalk along Central Boulevard next to the lake was empty except for me.
Instead, the throng of twentysomethings was promenading up and down four blocks of Orange Avenue, a street lined with old commercial buildings in use as bars, cafes, and pizza joints. The same kind of development stretched for a block or two down each side street. There were hot dog stands on every corner. Pedicabs ferried people to and fro. The numbers of partiers only grew larger as the little hand swept past 12.
Let me spell it out for you. In the heart of this modern, sprawling tourist mecca, in the midst of sparkling office towers, a sports arena, and a palm-lined lake, crowds of young people were drawn to 100-year-old buildings which had managed to escape the wrecking ball. The popularity of these buildings did not seem to suffer from being nowhere near the water.
These buildings were the exactly the sort of you find in Tulsa's Blue Dome, Brady, Brookside, South Boston, and Cherry Street districts, the sort that were demolished by urban renewal in Greenwood and where the Williams Center now stands.
The same dynamic, one documented by Jane Jacobs in her 1960 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is at work in Orlando, Tulsa, and cities from coast-to-coast: Old buildings provide a place for new businesses to take root. They provide an opportunity for people with dreams and ideas but not much capital to get something started and improve it over time.
Cool areas like this, you cannot build.
The one thing that local government could do to facilitate the development of this kind of area is the one thing Tulsa government officials seem most reluctant to do: Encourage adaptive reuse of older buildings and discourage demolition. An attempt at bold action last fall -- the CORE recommendations -- was halted by objections from the Mayor's Office, downtown property owners, and Downtown Tulsa Unlimited.
The success of many waterside developments -- San Antonio's Riverwalk, River Street in Savannah, and Oklahoma City's Bricktown, to name a few -- is directly dependent on the existence of old buildings that were available alongside for reuse for shops, restaurants, and nightclubs.
Whatever is built new alongside the river in Tulsa, the spaces will be too pricey for establishments that are homegrown, funky, cool, or weird.
The projects to be built with this river tax could be nice for Tulsans, particularly serious runners and cyclists, but they won't revolutionize our lives, our streets, or our local economy.
Instead of raising taxes to build this, we could do what most families do when they consider buying a luxury item like a big-screen TV. "This would be nice, but it's not essential. We can buy it if the money comes in."
John Piercey, the bond consultant to Tulsa County, projects that when all is said and done, the Vision 2025 sales tax will raise $78 million more than is required to fund the projects (not including full funding for the promised dams) and repay the bondholders. That's using a very modest average growth rate of 2.375%. (The surplus would be bigger by $56 million if Bill LaFortune hadn't allowed the arena to run over budget.)
Assuming a still modest rate of 4% would bring us closer to a $140 million surplus and would mean extra money available for dam construction sooner, perhaps as soon as the Corps of Engineering permitting process is complete in two or three years time.
If the Vision 2025 tax brings in enough money, we should use it to build the dams that were promised to voters as part of that tax package.
But there's no urgency that justifies transferring $282 million more from Tulsa County households to the construction industry.
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