No one is quite ready to say at this point that north Tulsa's decades-long economic struggles are over. But there are more than a few people who seem to believe the area has finally turned the corner.
City leaders gathered at a vacant lot at 1731 N. Peoria Ave. on Dec. 4 to break ground on a long-anticipated retail development called the Shoppes on Peoria. Coupled with the recent announcement that an adjacent vacant grocery store site would be reopened as the Gateway Market next month, the mood at the ground breaking was almost jubilant among those who have worked to lure businesses back to the area.
Perhaps most pleased was Reuben Gant, president and CEO of the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce and executive director of the Greenwood Community Development Corporation, which owns and manages the property where the development will be located.
"It's a great day in the neighborhood," Gant told the dozens of people assembled for the Dec. 4 event. "We are about to do something that's historical."
Asked later how long it had been since north Tulsa had witnessed a development of similar scale, Gant's eyes grew wide and he smiled.
"It's been a while," said the Tulsa native, a former Oklahoma State University All-American and tight end for the NFL's Buffalo Bills.
The 23,000-square-foot development will sit on a 3-acre site. Gant said the development is designed to play host to 12 tenants eventually, though only around seven are likely to be in business when the development opens nine months from now.
At this point, the merchants who have committed to opening a location at the Shoppes on Peoria include a Tropical Smoothie Café, EB Games, the More Space Place, a UPS Store, a shoe store and a party supply store. A restaurant is planned for the site, as well.
Gant said he anticipates no problems filling the rest of the available spaces, adding that several businesses are considering the site, including an ophthalmologist, a fitness center, a dry-cleaning business and a Wing Stop franchise.
The project was hatched by the North Tulsa Economic Development Initiative, which was created by Mayor Kathy Taylor; the nonprofit Tulsa Economic Development Corporation, which played an integral role in putting together the deal for the Gateway Market; and the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce. The development will be paid for by CDBG funds approved by the City Council.
Tulsa Economic Development Corporation executive director Rose Washington-Rentie, who said she believes the property where the development will be located has been vacant for more than a decade, is among those who count the new retail development as a major step forward for north Tulsa, which has languished in recent decades as virtually all metro development went south and east.
"It means progress," she said. "It means this community has not been forgotten. People need to see progress."
Washington-Rentie said the location of the development is great, with strong traffic counts and high expenditures from local residents. She cited data from earlier this decade, when an Albertsons grocery store was still operating nearby, that indicated there was a $210 million opportunity gap for retail sales in the area.
Now, with a new grocery store and a retail development that could be home to a dozen tenants on the way, that gap may start to disappear.
"As I've said before, this is exactly what that area needs--more retail development," TEDC chairman Casey Stowe said. "There is a tremendous lack of retail services in that area."
Stowe estimates the Shoppes on Peoria will create up to 50 new jobs while creating a prime opportunity for entrepreneurs. He said his organization is providing counseling and technical assistance for those entrepreneurs, as well as helping arrange financing through local banks.
He's counting on the Gateway Market and the Shoppes on Peoria to serve as the anchor for a broader effort to revitalize north Tulsa.
"I'm sure one will enhance the other," he said. "This will be a retail node at that corner. It's a win-win situation for both projects. For all practical purposes, they're going to be standing side by side. If not formally at first, informally, they're going to be partners in bringing major economic development to the area."
The Dec. 4 ground breaking attracted a slew of city officials, including Taylor and District 1 City Councilor Jack Henderson, both of whom reminded those assembled of the importance of supporting the project financially when it becomes a reality.
"Remember, when the Shoppes on Peoria open, this is the place to shop," Taylor said.
North Tulsa resident Ester Ogans echoed that thought.
"If we don't support them, they lose money, and they probably won't try again," she said.
The emotion Ogans displayed at the event was shared by many of those who have become deeply invested in the project.
"If I cry a little, forgive me, but it seems as though we've been working on this for 10 years," she said.
She also advised the crowd not to consider the project the end of economic development efforts in the area but only the beginning.
"We can't stop here," she said. "We have to go forward and make north Tulsa a place to be proud of again."
Washington-Rentie has little doubt that will happen.
"It's a perfect Community Development Block Grant case study," she said of the Shoppes on Peoria. "It'll be even more perfect when it becomes functional and we can start measuring the economic impact."
But getting the project to the ground-breaking stage was not easy. Many of the speakers cited the difficulty of getting people to buy into the project.
"The perception is that this is a crime-ridden, poverty-ridden area," Gant said, indicating those notions are erroneous. "But the people here have to spend their dollars somewhere, and it's a travesty that they have to get in their cars and drive for miles to take care of the realities of living."
Stowe acknowledged that while much has been made in recent months of north Tulsa's status as a food desert, the need for retail opportunities is just as great.
"I don't know if there's such a thing as a retail desert," he said while adding that north Tulsa appears to fit that description. Many of the basic retail outlets that people take for granted in other, better-served parts of the city are non-existent in north Tulsa, he said.
Gant and many others are ready for that to change.
"The residents here are just as deserving (of shopping opportunities) as any other part of town," he said. "This is about creating access."
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