The vacant building at Pine St. and Peoria Ave. is a fitting symbol of the general disregard city leaders and citizens historically have for the community of north Tulsa and its people.
At least, that's how Councilors Roscoe Turner and Jack Henderson see it, whose respective districts straddle the site.
It used to be an Albertson's grocery store, until the chain closed shop in June, turning north Tulsa into an almost total "food desert," with no major grocery stores in sight for miles (see "Starving in the Desert" in last week's UTW at www.urbantulsa.com for more details).
"It symbolizes what some of the citizens living in the community are feeling, how upset they are," said Henderson, whose District 1 lies west of the former Albertson's store.
That symbolism made the site a fitting rallying point a few months ago for what Turner called north Tulsa's "rise against the tyranny of City Hall."
His District 3 stretches eastward from the abandoned food store.
Ostensibly, the rally/press conference on the morning of Saturday, Sept. 8 was to protest Mayor Kathy Taylor's hiring former Police Chief Ron Palmer to once again fill the post as the city's top cop, as well as to denounce the proposed county tax increase for river development projects.
Days earlier, Henderson dramatically stood up and stormed out of the Mayor's press conference when she announced Palmer's name as the new chief.
"He was chief when there was strife in the police department with a lot of the black officers, and the north Tulsa community is very upset with the choice-- they had a lot of problems with the police when he was chief," Turner told UTW at the time.
The councilor said he chose the Albertson's husk as the location for the rally "because this is one thing the north community has been complaining about, about the treatment they've been getting from City Hall."
"All we've been getting out of City Hall are broken promises," he said during the rally.
"We're trying to get this grocery store in north Tulsa, but then we get this slap in our faces from the Mayor. They've obviously got other priorities than getting a grocery store in here," said Henderson.
"I think it's probably one of the biggest concerns we have," he added.
"It's imperative," concurred Turner.
What was apparently even more imperative, though, was the opportunity afforded by the empty store to complain about north Tulsa's plight and to point their fingers at other city leaders for the community's problems.
While the North Tulsa Duo were protesting before constituents and TV news cameras about the Mayor and other city leaders "slapping them in the face" while they were down and in urgent need of a place to buy food, some of those very city leaders were busy trying to get north Tulsa a new grocery store.
That's only after they tried and failed to do it in a way that would have enabled Turner and Henderson to take all, if not most of the credit for the development, though.
Several weeks ago, it became known that two different groups are considering the old Albertson's building as a location for a new grocery store.
One of those prospective grocers is Daryl Mitchell of the St. Louis-based Mitchell's Enterprises.
Mitchell's family owns and operates two grocery stores in St. Louis, which have been in business for 40 years, and another is scheduled to open next year. All three locations are in low-income, minority areas of St. Louis.
Upon learning that it was Councilor Rick Westcott of southwest Tulsa's 2nd District who hosted Mitchell's visit to Tulsa and showed him the old Albertson's store, just out of curiosity, UTW asked both him and Turner why he would take such a responsibility upon himself rather than Turner or Henderson.
"The Mayor and Westcott left us out of the loop altogether," answered Turner.
That's not how Westcott tells it, though.
Rather, as he recounts, he did everything he could to include Turner and Henderson in that particular loop.
Soon after Albertson's left in June, Westcott learned that one of the partners in his law firm knew a successful grocer in St. Louis--the aforementioned Daryl Mitchell.
So, he asked for his contact information.
"He was and is extremely well-qualified in the grocery business, and he's been successful in neighborhoods like that for decades," the councilor said.
"I'm a city councilor for District 2, but I'm also a city councilor for the city of Tulsa. I knew they had a problem in north Tulsa, and I happened to have a possible solution," Westcott recounted.
However, he added, "I recognized that it was more properly Jack and Roscoe's concern, so I gave them the contact information for Mr. Mitchell."
Westcott said he gave Henderson and Turner the information in person some time in the first half of August.
"After a few weeks, Mr. Mitchell said he hadn't been contacted by either of them," he continued.
"I don't really know what Councilors Turner and Henderson have done or not done, or what conversations they've had with people over the past few months," the councilor said.
But, just to cover all of north Tulsa's bases, Westcott then gave Mitchell's information to Don Himelfarb, the Mayor's director of economic development.
"He was extremely excited," Westcott recalled.
"As I was leaving his office, I heard him call and begin a conversation with Mr. Mitchell," he added.
That's the same story Himelfarb told.
When asked how he got into contact with Mitchell, he said, "I got that information from Rick Westcott, and as soon as he gave me the number, I called."
Turner, though, denies that he knew anything about Mitchell's group prior to the Oct. 9 river tax election.
"After we defeated the river tax thing, a partner in Westcott's firm contacted me about Mitchell," the councilor said, referring to Lee Levinson of Levinson and Bodenhamer law firm.
"I told him, 'Here's what we need to do: write a letter to Daryl Mitchell and carbon copy it to me and to Don Himelfarb,'" Turner recounted.
After that conversation with Levinson about the fate of his district's nutritional fortunes, the councilor said he and Henderson were excluded from the discussion until Mitchell's visit in mid-October, at which point Mitchell and Westcott met with Henderson, Turner, Himelfarb and other city leaders about his potentially bringing a grocery store to the beleaguered community.
When asked about Westcott's version of events, Turner immediately responded, "Westcott is lying. They left us out of the loop altogether."
Why would he lie, or leave you out of the loop?
"Well, that's a really good question," he answered.
"I haven't had the number since August," said Henderson.
"We first met Mitchell in October when he came down," he added.
Any chance he gave you the number and you just forgot about it?
"No," answered Turner.
"I can unequivocally tell you, he had no contact with me about it," said Henderson.
"We have been trying to find people to get a grocery store in here. For us to sit on it all that time--that would not make sense to me," Henderson added.
So, Westcott was asked, Any chance you're remembering it wrong, and didn't give them the information until mid-October?
"Absolutely not. I went to them and gave them the information. There's no reason I would keep them out of the loop," Westcott answered.
As evidence, the councilor provided UTW a copy of a fax he sent to Daryl Mitchell, dated August 22, which included Himelfarb and Turner's contact information.
Also, Westcott provided a copy of a letter faxed to his law office by Mitchell, which was addressed to Turner and Himelfarb.
"Mr. Lee Levinson of Tulsa, Oklahoma contacted our company... concerning a possible business opportunity in the greater Tulsa area. We are a family owned and operated enterprise and have been in business for 60 years. We are also one of the oldest African-American businesses in the greater St. Louis area," the letter read.
"Please let us know, at your earliest convenience, when we can travel to Tulsa to discuss what we consider to be a very exciting business opportunity for our company and the city of Tulsa," the document also read.
The letter was dated Wednesday, August 29.
Westcott said he took copies of the letter to City Hall the next day when he was there for the weekly City Council meeting, and gave copies to Himelfarb and to Turner.
"I either gave it to Roscoe in person or I put it on his desk," he said.
To confirm his version of events, Turner also provided a copy of some correspondence from Himelfarb to Mitchell, which had been carbon-copied to him, presumably implying that it was a result of the direction he gave to Levinson.
It was also copied to the Mayor, Westcott, the city's Director of Real Estate Management Leon Davis and Dwain Midget of the Mayor's office.
It reads, "Thanks for taking my call. Enclosed is a packet of information regarding the former Albertson's location. After you have reviewed this overview, call me and let's schedule an onsite meeting. We are excited about your interest and want to explore how we can assist you with a new location in Tulsa."
However, it wasn't dated any time after the Oct. 9 river tax election.
The letter was dated Friday, August 31--about a week before Turner and Henderson would use the vacated grocery store as a symbol of north Tulsa's victimization at the hands of a "tyrannical" City Hall that "breaks its promises" and "slaps north Tulsa in the face" by not making it's grocery deficiency its top priority.
For whatever reason, Turner and Henderson declined to contact Mitchell when they had the opportunity in August.
They said, though, beginning in October, they've been in contact with another prospective group, led by Marcus Howard.
The five principals in the group are alumni of Booker T. Washington High School, and plan to put a store called "Freedom Mart" at the old Albertson's site.
Turner said he and Henderson have been working with the group trying to get funding for the project "from a private source" and, he said, "there's a government grant out there somewhere for this."
Westcott said Mitchell also "has a very strong desire" to open a store at the site, and wants to "buy the building outright."
The councilor said the grocer was considering setting up three separate businesses on the premises: a grocery store, a restaurant and a liquor store, and was in the process of reviewing applicable zoning and liquor laws for that purpose.
"The ball's really in their court," said Himelfarb of the two prospective grocers.
"We've supplied both groups with information. We're not taking a position, favoring one or the other. We're just giving them all the information they need and ask for. The only thing I care about is getting a grocery store in north Tulsa. I don't care who it is," he added.
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