As I set out this past weekend to write about the prospects of a deal that would bring the Drillers to downtown Tulsa, a breaking news story dramatized the challenges faced by the City of Tulsa in keeping the baseball team from shuffling off to the suburbs.
We learned last Saturday that the Tulsa 66ers, the minor-league basketball team featured on the cover of last week's Urban Tulsa Weekly, are considering a move from the Expo Square Pavilion to the new SpiritBank Event Center, part of Regal Plaza, a mixed retail, office, hotel, convention, and entertainment complex, just inside the Bixby city limits at 105th and Memorial.
The Bixby facility, developed by the Remy Companies, will seat 4,000 to 4,500 for basketball, plenty big to accommodate a 66ers crowd -- they average about 2,000 fans each game. The SpiritBank center will also be used to host trade shows and conventions, and might even be able to accommodate hockey and arena football.
There is a minimal amount of public money involved in the development of Regal Plaza, but the developer is taking all the risk. If the development succeeds in generating $550 million in retail sales over 10 years, the developers will get a sales tax rebate of $5.5 million. If they build it and no one comes, the developers walk away empty-handed.
The 66ers ownership sees this as an opportunity to expand their fan base. The 66ers have nothing but kind words for the Pavilion, a beautiful art deco building which was renovated not many years ago and has ample parking.
But the Bixby site, just a mile south of the Creek Turnpike, would put the team in the heart of an area booming with the magic demographic combination of children and disposable income. It also offers synergy with nearby dining and shopping, something that doesn't exist at Expo Square and midtown where children and excitement are very hard to find.
Just four miles to the west, Jenks is hoping that a similar arrangement will attract the Tulsa Drillers. A new ballpark would be part of the billion-dollar River District mixed-use development, funded upfront by the developers, but rebated by the City of Jenks in a tax increment financing (TIF) arrangement if the River District brings in enough new sales and property tax revenue.
Advocates of a downtown Drillers Stadium point to the success of the Oklahoma Redhawks at the AT&T Bricktown Ballpark in Oklahoma City. There is a sort of symbiosis between Bricktown and the ballpark, which opened in 1997. Baseball fans came to see the new stadium and noticed that there was a bustling district of restaurants and bars right across the street -- a reason to come early enough for dinner before the game and to stay awhile after the last out.
Diners, conventioneers, and clubhoppers came to Bricktown for the nightlife and noticed that the ballpark would be an appealing place to spend a summer evening.
We'd love to see that same chemistry in downtown Tulsa, and there was some hope of that in 2006, as Global Development Partners tried to acquire the Nordam and Bill White properties downtown for a mixed-use district that would have been anchored by a baseball stadium. The proposed development would have come within a block of the Blue Dome.
But financing didn't come through, options expired, lawsuits were filed, and we spent most of 2007 wondering if a Wal-Mart would fill the stadium's spot and hoping it wouldn't be too terribly ugly.
With Wal-Mart's decision to back out, Global's proposed site for a ballpark is once again the prime possibility for bringing the Drillers downtown. This time, however, it would be without the surrounding mixed-use development that would connect the park to the Blue Dome district.
That creates a couple of difficulties for the proposed stadium location. A downtown Drillers Stadium on its own would be yet another forlorn island of activity in downtown, separated by block after block of bleak parking lots and blank-walled buildings from the next nearest zone of life. Entrepreneurs might fill in the gap between the ballpark and Blue Dome with new restaurants and clubs, but the lack of such development around the BOk Center -- a venue that should have far more event nights than a Texas League ballpark's 68 home dates a year -- doesn't offer much reason to hope.
The other problem involves financing. A TIF district encompassing the entire Global mixed-use development might have captured enough incremental tax revenue to pay for a new ballpark. But a stadium on its own is not likely to generate enough new revenue to pay for itself.
And that brings us to some sort of tax increase. Mayor Kathy Taylor's administration has floated the idea of raising the hotel/motel tax from the current rate of 5% to 7 or 8%. Each percent increase would amount to about $1.25 million additional revenue per year.
As tax increases go, hotel-motel taxes are among the least burdensome on local taxpayers. Typically, though, those taxes are dedicated for facilities and services that will increase demand for local hotel rooms. The last time Tulsa increased the tax was in 1982, from 3% to 5%, to finance a 100,000 sq. ft. exhibit hall for the downtown convention center. Another big chunk of the hotel-motel receipts goes to the Tulsa Metro Chamber to provide convention and visitors services to the city.
It's hard to argue that moving a AA ball club from midtown to downtown will generate new room nights for Tulsa hotels. It would be easier to make that case if the new stadium were part of a bigger retail, entertainment, and convention destination that would, like Bricktown and Branson Landing, draw visitors from across the region.
Ironically, suburbs like Jenks and Bixby seem to be better positioned than Tulsa to create a dense, lively, walkable context for a sports venue.
Jenks offers the Drillers baseball-friendly demographics and the chance to be part of an exciting new entertainment district. That combination is going to be hard to resist for Drillers owner Chuck Lamson.
Tulsa can't compete with Jenks's demographics, but city leaders ought to see if some semblance of the Global Development Partners plan can be resurrected -- include some surrounding development in the plan to provide a comfortably walkable connection from the ballpark to the Blue Dome district.
Barring that, a location closer to Blue Dome -- like the site of the City's soon-to-be-vacated Hartford Building -- shouldn't be ruled out. And, assuming the Branson Landing folks haven't been totally put off by the city's study-it-to-death attitude, the city should offer the option of building the stadium as part of a "Tulsa Landing" riverfront TIF district on the west bank at 23rd St. True, it wouldn't be downtown, but it would be close, and it would keep the Drillers inside the Tulsa city limits.
The city still needs to address the longer-term problem that will continue to cause entertainment, retail, and ultimately jobs to leave town: How do we keep families with young children from heading to the suburbs? Taking care of basic city services -- police, streets, and parks -- is a big part of the task.
Most of all, Tulsa's civic and business leaders need to work with our legislators and our school board to bring real school choice to the central city. They ought to support SB 2148, introduced by Tulsa State Sens. Judy Eason-McIntyre (a former TPS board member) and Jim Williamson (a former TPS teacher) to give tax credits for donations to educational scholarship funds for low-income students. They also ought to prompt the TPS board to expand charter schools and provide support for new and existing charters.
If Tulsa were to offer a wide and affordable range of public, charter, and private schools, Tulsa would be able to keep young families in the city. And family-friendly entertainment like the Tulsa Drillers would have no reason to move to the suburbs.
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