Despite a lack of funding from the city, Tulsa's Kendall-Whittier neighborhood has been admitted to the state Department of Commerce's Urban Main Street program.
Teresa O'Rourke, a local real estate agent who served as chairwoman of the district's Main Street application committee, received a letter from Natalie Shirley, state secretary of commerce and tourism, earlier this week informing her of Kendall-Whittier's acceptance. The Main Street program provides training and technical assistance for preservation-based commercial district revitalization.
"Everyone's elated," O'Rourke said of her community's response to the news. "We've all worked so hard to get this going. It's actually been a couple of years in the making. If it hadn't been for (state Rep.) Seneca Scott, I don't think we would have been able to pull this off."
Kendall-Whittier's road to membership was not easy. Any community applying for membership in the program is required to raise $100,000 a year to cover the costs of its participation--half from private sources and half from the municipal government from the community in which it is based. Much of the money goes to fund the position of a full-time Main Street director.
While supporters of the Kendall-Whittier application were able to raise the $50,000 in private funds and in-kind donations with little trouble, Mayor Dewey Bartlett told O'Rourke in January the city of Tulsa would not be able to provide its half because of a severe budget crisis that has led to layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts.
O'Rourke feared that would sink her district's application. But she and other organizers persisted, amending their application to reduce the director's position to part-time status.
That decision apparently paid off. O'Rourke said she guessed that other communities that were considering applying for membership in the program were in the same boat and decided to drop out when the lack of municipal support became an issue.
"We didn't," she said. "We had blind faith. Actually, I don't think it was so much blind, but it was definitely faith."
O'Rourke said the congratulatory letter she received from the Commerce Department did not offer many details in regard to how the process will unfold. But it did indicate Kendall-Whittier officials would receive a copy of an agreement soon from commerce officials outlining the scope of their responsibilities for membership in the program.
O'Rourke said the initial steps for her neighborhood will involve forming a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and putting together a board of directors that will be required to receive Main Street training. She said that group will decide on an official name for the organization.
The Kendall-Whittier group also will need to choose a director. O'Rourke said she plans to apply for the position, but she said she was sure several other people would be interested in the job, as well.
O'Rourke said she began pursuing membership in the Main Street program for Kendall-Whittier two years ago, but her initial efforts at drumming up interest among residents were unsuccessful.
That's when Scott, the newly elected state representative for the district, got wind of her efforts and offered his help, eventually bringing all the players together.
"Seneca kept up with it," she said. "He didn't just drop in, he kept coming to the meetings and he brought the right people to the table to get the job done. He went door knocking in the neighborhood with the rest of us. He was a driving force behind this. That's something you don't normally see from an elected official."
O'Rourke believes Kendall-Whittier's acceptance into the program will help revitalize the district, which is anchored by Whittier Square at Admiral and Lewis, often cited as the first urban shopping district in the city outside of downtown.
The area dates to 1916 and features a number of historically and architecturally significant buildings. It already is home to a number of successful revitalization projects, including the Circle Cinema.
"My expectations (for the program) are great," O'Rourke said. "I have long felt like Kendall-Whittier is probably the most walkable community in Tulsa, and so few people get that. We've got two grocery stores, a bunch of convenience stores, a library, the Circle Cinema, (retail) and various medical facilities."
The district recently lost its post office, but O'Rourke said part of the neighborhood's Main Street mission would be to see if it can't get a new one.
She said a new bakery is planned for the district, and there has been considerable interest expressed by a number of parties in developing the old Swinney's Hardware location.
"Main Street helps with that," she said. "It teaches you how to bring in new business and new growth in your community."
Kendall-Whittier's Main Street fundraising efforts netted $25,000 in cash and $25,000 in in-kind donations, O'Rourke said. Office, meeting and art exhibition space is being donated by local merchants, along with construction and landscaping supervision.
O'Rourke believes those commitments from individuals and merchants in the neighborhood swung the tide for her group's application, allowing it to overcome the city's lack of financial participation.
"I will admit I had my doubts," she said. "I had severe doubts this would happen. But if you look at the letter (commerce officials) sent us, it does talk about our community support. They were very much aware of the groundswell of support in the neighborhood. It was awesome. It was infectious."
The Main Street program has been around for nearly two decades and has more than 40 members around the state. Commerce officials credit it with generating $467 million in private investment, along with a net gain 3,900 new businesses and more than 12,300 new jobs.
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