Throughout the past 18 years, the state Department of Commerce's Main Street program has achieved a great deal of success in helping small-town business districts revitalize themselves.
But in recent years, the program has been employed in urban business districts, as well, and now supporters of Tulsa's Kendall-Whittier neighborhood are trying to position their community for membership in the program.
Teresa O'Rourke, a local real estate agent who is serving as the chairperson for the neighborhood's Main Street application committee, said her group is working hard with an eye toward completing its application by the Jan. 8 submission deadline. The group has been meeting each Monday to work on the application and will continue to do so until the work is done, she said.
"We've been getting good attendance," she said, adding that each meeting has attracted 10 to 15 participants. "However, we're looking for more because this is a big job."
O'Rourke said there is a chance the group's application could be put off for next year to give it more time, though that's not her preference.
"I hope not," she said. "It definitely is a struggle trying to get all this finished. But we have a pretty strong neighborhood and a lot of people interested in making this happen. If not, there's always next year, but we're focusing on this year."
O'Rourke said perhaps the biggest advantage to applying for admission to the program this year is that the Commerce Department has indicated it will be awarding membership to two communities this year instead of just one, as it typically does. The Main Street program provides training and technical assistance for preservation-based commercial district revitalization.
It also calls for the creation of a Main Street director position, someone who oversees the local program. O'Rourke described the position as part mayor, part realtor.
"Their job is to bring focus to the area," she said.
State Rep. Seneca Scott, D-Tulsa, who has been an active participant in the meetings so far, said admission to the program would provide tremendous benefits to Kendall-Whittier, particularly the addition of a Main Street director.
"This will seriously allow the neighborhood to have a point of contact to focus on economic development and marketing in the retail corridor," Scott said. "They don't have a chamber of commerce, so we really need to have this."
The neighborhood is anchored by Whittier Square, located at Admiral and Lewis and often cited as the hub of what was the first urban shopping district outside of downtown Tulsa, according to O'Rourke. The area was established in 1916 and includes a large number of historically and architecturally significant buildings, she said. It also boasts plenty of free parking and a number of successful revitalization projects already in place.
But the prospective Main Street program would cover a much wider area, O'Rourke said. It would extend north on Lewis to Independence and south on Lewis to 11th Street. It would also extend three blocks east and west on Admiral to 3rd Street and 6th Street.
The rest of the neighborhood--generally described as being bordered by Dawson Road on the north, Harvard Avenue on the East, 11th Street on the south and Utica Avenue on the west--is anchored by Kendall-Whittier Elementary School, the Kendall-Whittier Library and the University of Tulsa campus. It features several churches and mostly single-family dwellings but has struggled to achieve stability since Tulsa's outmigration to the suburbs began after World War II.
O'Rourke said the point of applying to the program is to spur economic development in the area, something Main Street programs around the state have been largely successful at encouraging. In the nearly two decades since the program's inception, the Commerce Department reports more than $467 million in private investment has occurred in its member communities, along with a net gain of more than 3,900 business openings and more than 12,300 jobs. The number of communities participating across the state now stands at 42.
Admission to the program won't be cheap. O'Rourke said operating a Main Street program costs $100,000 a year, a total that includes funding for the director's position. Typically, the community would be responsible for raising half that amount, she said, while the city of Tulsa would need to commit to contributing the rest.
O'Rourke said she realizes it will be difficult to convince city officials to fork over $50,000 for the program at a time when the municipal budget is so tight and city employees are being furloughed.
"We do have a new mayor in office, and we hope to meet with him soon," O'Rourke said. "Just from what he's said along the way, I think the mayor gets it because he said he'd be the job-gettingest mayor we've ever had. And that's what this is about--jobs, and restoring the neighborhood not to what it once was, but close to it."
Convincing the city to come up with its share will be the easy part, O'Rourke said. The group also will have to raise $50,000 from area businesses, individuals and others. O'Rourke plans on casting a wide net to meet that goal.
"The whole city would benefit from this," she said. "We think it's a win-win situation for everybody."
O'Rourke acknowledges that many parts of the neighborhood remain blighted, but she believes membership in the Main Street program can help much of the area duplicate the success of the Circle Cinema at 10 S. Lewis Ave., perhaps Kendall-Whittier's flagship business.
"They show wonderful films, and people from all over the city come there," she said. "We've all heard concerns expressed about homeless people and crime, but statistically, this area has no more crime than other parts of Tulsa."
O'Rourke said the area around Whittier Square has plenty of retail space available, something she hopes to see change in the future.
"The people who live in this community and need to drive to south Tulsa or Owasso to do their shopping would like to do it here," she said. "We want to make this a walkable community. To have those businesses available to serve people would be a great thing."
If the Kendall-Whittier group submits its application by Jan. 8, O'Rourke said she expects to receive a decision from commerce officials by March.
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