Last summer, an article ran in our pages entitled "Who Runs Downtown?" in which a handful of downtown business operators were quoted voicing their disgruntlement with the city government for what they saw as the mismanagement of the city's central business district by Downtown Tulsa Unlimited, the private, non-profit group with which the city contracts for the area's upkeep and management (the article ran in the July 26-August 1 issue of UTW, which can be seen at www.urbantulsa.com).
In response to the outcry, the Mayor's Office assured one of the most outspoken critics that a task force was underway to explore the very issues he raised, with a report and recommendations to be completed by the first of the year.
That report, however, has not been delivered, and that critic, among others, isn't any happier about the management of downtown Tulsa.
The critic in question is longtime Tulsan and downtown resident Kent Morlan of Beacon 400 LLC. He is also president of the Central Park Homeowners Association in downtown, which includes about 400 homes and represents 800 downtown residents.
"Downtown Tulsa's a train wreck; it's been managed into the ground," he complained last year.
The City of Tulsa contracts with Downtown Tulsa Unlimited for various services related to the promotion and maintenance of the 900-acre area.
That annual contract is a little more than $1 million, and includes $380,360 for "Management: improvement district and pedestrian amenity maintenance;" $170,000 for the cleaning of streets, alleys and sidewalks; $98,170 for landscaping; $96,900 for a shuttle bus transit service; $84,650 for "awareness/promotion;" $40,720 for security; $78,000 for a "free parking project" and $63,200 for "parking, planning."
A portion of that contract is paid for by higher sales tax rates paid by downtown businesses, which increase in proportion to a business' proximity to the intersection at 5th and Main St., Morlan explained.
Morlan contended that DTU was negligent, or at least lax in its duties of sweeping the streets and cleaning up dead trees, and had nothing good to say about the company's execution of its other responsibilities.
Other downtown business operators, like Chuck Adams of Tulsa Shoe Rebuilder, complained of unresponsiveness on the part of DTU.
In the past, he said, when he'd called DTU to report excessive accumulations of bird feces at 4th and Main St., to which DTU hadn't attended.
"I was told, 'You have to call so-and-so,' and then 'so-and-so' wasn't in the office or told me to call some other 'so-and-so,' but I'm not going to make 15 different phone calls for a service they should be providing already," Adams told UTW.
Jim Norton, DTU's executive director, as well as members of DTU's board of directors, told UTW that the company is, in fact, fulfilling its duties and providing good services to downtown business owners.
Norton said DTU's bad rap among some downtown businesses is largely the result of Morlan spreading discontent as a part of his strategy of positioning himself for the job.
But, the DTU honcho said the full extent of his organization's services wouldn't be apparent to the man on the street, since much of the street cleaning goes on in the middle of the night when most people aren't up late enough to witness it, and much of their advocacy for downtown property owners happens largely out of the public's eye.
Morlan had been in correspondence with Mayor Kathy Taylor through a serious of letters to her and other members of the city government, contending that Beacon Services could, for the same price, offer the same services, but at better quality, as well as free Wi-Fi in the area and more security.
"The reason I'm interested in bidding on this is, first of all, I'm unhappy with how downtown works, and I don't think that Jim Norton is an effective advocate for the businesses down there," Morlan told UTW.
"I'm also doing it because I've been urged to do so by a number of downtown business owners and property owners who don't think they're getting the value for their money. And that's really the essence of it," he added.
The last word in that exchange with the city came from Don Himelfarb, who was the Mayor's director of economic development until early this year.
"We agree the downtown community's needs and services and how best to deliver them is due for a complete re-examination to ensure success," he wrote to Morlan in a letter dated July 20, 2007.
"With the recently approved City Hall move, a new hotel, entertainment area across from the arena, and hopefully a downtown ball park, the timing to re-evaluate Tulsa's needs is now," Himelfarb continued, explaining that, in the interest of analyzing those issues, the Mayor would appoint a task force to begin meeting in August.
"She will request a report and recommendations be received prior to the budget process next fiscal year, with a target date of no later than January 1, 2008. An RFP (request for bids) based on the report would then be issued," he explained.
The New Year has come and is getting a little long in the tooth, still, no report has been issued, DTU's contract has been renewed for another year, and Morlan isn't any happier than he was last year.
"First of all, they didn't do it," he complained about the promised task force and report.
When the first of the year came and went and he didn't receive any word or see any news coverage of the report promised by Himelfarb, Morlan resumed his correspondence with the Mayor's Office, expressing his interest in bidding on the DTU contract.
In February, he received a response from Susan Neal, the Mayor's director of community development and education.
"The mission to examine those services is still on track but time has been necessarily adjusted to take advantage of the many changes taking place in the heart of our city (relocation of City Hall, possible home to a new Drillers Stadium, BOK Events Center completion and many others)," Neal wrote.
She later explained to UTW, and to Morlan via that letter, that "the task force would be premature to start" now that Dr. Jack Crowley is on loan through the University of Oklahoma as a special advisor to the Mayor on urban planning.
While Crowley didn't come on board until January, and the task force was supposed to have been appointed in August and finished with its report by January 1, Neal said conversations between Crowley and the Mayor's Office had begun earlier, through the course of which he asked the Mayor to delay the committee.
"If I come and we get this plan going, then it would not make sense to try to think about how to operationalize a plan before you know what the plan is, so I'd appreciate it if you'd give me some time to make that happen," Neal said in summation of Crowley's request regarding the task force.
"We thought we could also go ahead and begin that simultaneously, and he said, 'No, I really need to have this time,'" she added.
Neal said Crowley is currently in the process of meeting with private property owners and other stakeholders in downtown Tulsa to determine what kinds of services Downtown Tulsa Unlimited, or a worthy competitor, should provide in the New Downtown.
She wrote to Morlan, "Dr. Crowley is meeting with downtown stakeholders and has asked for your contact information, which I have provided. I know he would like to have a discussion with you regarding his direction and your ideas and suggestions for downtown Tulsa. I hope you will make time for a conversation when he calls."
Morlan told UTW that Crowley has yet to contact him.
However, representatives of the Mayor's Office have promised to arrange a meeting with Crowley for UTW, so next week's issue should include an account of that discussion of Crowley's ideas for how to revitalize downtown and how to make the best use of services provided by DTU, Kent Morlan, or whatever interested parties bid for the upkeep of downtown.
Next Week, "What Exactly Is a 'DTU'"?
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