Almost a year ago, all of the major players were ready to play ball -- with the well-practiced team that included Mayor Kathy Taylor and a majority of the City Council. In the game that would determine the future for the Drillers' legacy in Tulsa, they were equipped to take on their opponents and win the grand prize -- a new ballpark in downtown Tulsa.
Now the freshly painted ONEOK Field has been welcoming fans to watch Drillers games since early April.
Blake Ewing, the owner of Joe Momma's pizza restaurant at 112 S. Elgin Ave., has seen new faces walking into his business even before the first pitch was thrown at the new field.
"As the ballpark got closer to being finished and the hype got spread around, there was a lot of media over the ballpark," he said. "Just excitement in general for downtown started growing, so our sales have increased almost week after week since January."
In fact, Ewing's business venture into downtown in November 2008 is now producing more than just pizza. While walking to one of the games within the past month, some Drillers' fans have noticed the hammering and drilling that has been happening next door to Joe Momma's. Ewing will soon open a T-shirt shop and an '80s themed arcade bar next to his current pizza business. All three will be conveniently located on the same street as ONEOK Field.
One business entrepreneur already began using the excitement over the field to make his hopes of opening a new business a reality. Fat Guy's Burger Bar plastered its plump logo on the windows of the 140 N. Greenwood Ave. restaurant located just outside the left field gate for ONEOK Field.
"We opened six days before the ballpark, and business has steadily increased each week," said Chris Dodge, owner of the burger business. "I have always viewed the ballpark as a really big advertisement for our business with 500 to 1,000 people walking by my place not once but twice per game."
To Ewing, an increase in sales is not what is sparking his excitement over the new ballpark downtown.
"I think generation after generation of Tulsans didn't come downtown," he said. "It wasn't a part of their childhood, but now the kids that come downtown for baseball games will have downtown as part of their growing up experience. Those kids will be adults in 15 years, and they'll change the way Tulsans think of downtown."
Another business owner who is credited with revamping much of the Blue Dome District echoes the same excitement over the new movement into the neighborhood.
"The real positive for us is on Friday and Saturday night, you see families with little kids walking around the Blue Dome District, which hardly ever happens," said Elliot Nelson, owner of the well-known James E. McNellie's Public House and the three-story restaurant El Guapo's Cantina. "It's a great experience to walk out on our street and see people milling around out there, even if they're not coming into your restaurant. It's great to see the streets really alive because it's been a long time trying to get to that."
Nelson has not seen a noticeable increase at his four restaurants, but it is still too early to tell how the ballpark will immediately affect the district, he said. Before the ballpark opened, Nelson was actually worried some of his businesses would take a hit with the new flood of people. After fighting for six years to establish enough parking for his customers, Nelson was concerned Drillers' fans would use his spaces and leave no room for hungry Tulsans.
"Outside of the first night, parking hasn't really been an issue, though," he said.
Another nearby grouping of parking spots has not seen too many people eating up necessary parking. Oklahoma State University-Tulsa is allowing fans to park on campus Friday nights, Saturdays and Sundays. The rest of the week, however, campus police and signs deter people from taking spots from students and faculty.
Ron Bussert, OSU-Tulsa's vice president for administration and finance, said fans are being courteous throughout the week and are not typically parking on campus. On the weekends, however, several hundreds have been using the available parking.
In an effort to ensure parking would be available for baseball games, parts of the Greenwood District's pavement got a facelift. New parking lots were added and streets were repaved. Reuben Gant, president of the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce, hopes this facelift will continue throughout his district. Gant is now going through the preliminary planning phase of creating additional development a block away from the field. These mixed-use buildings would include separate sections for retail, offices and residential.
Ewing believes the opening of the ballpark will lead to even more development downtown.
"It starts in the middle of the middle -- the center of downtown. Something like an arena or a ballpark, and the city creates this gigantic first domino," he said. "Those are the big dominoes that start to fall. As that happens, then the next thing is wrapped up and before long, momentum gets going. You'll see a massive influx in residential, a large scale retail and residential development. Someone will come in and develop a giant block."
Many businesses in the heart of downtown consider the field a success for their long-neglected part of Tulsa, but while these dominos swiftly fall, other downtown property owners are beginning to fall, too. Some long-time Tulsans are rapidly being drowned out by the happy crowds at the field. These Tulsans began to lose their voices at the same time they lost that pivotal game against Taylor and the council nearly a year ago when they were thrown the assessment tax curve ball.
Long before the first batter stepped up to plate, even before the first bulldozer went to work on the groundwork for ONEOK Field, the City Council approved an assessment tax that would raise $25 million to use toward the construction of the ballpark and the redevelopment of surrounding properties.
"I think the intentions were impeccable, but the methodology of achieving that was suspect," Ewing said of the tax.
The tax, which is planned to last at least 30 years, charges a fee of 6.5 cents per square foot of building and land in the Tulsa Stadium Improvement District, which includes property owners within the Inner Dispersal Loop. The tax extended and increased an existing assessment tax created for downtown's Main Mall pedestrian system in the 1970s. However, the tax for the ballpark makes the rate the same for all properties in the district, while the Main Mall tax decreased with distance from the Main Mall.
Marc Price has owned Better Price Warehouse Sales Co. at 1151 S. Frankfort Ave. for 30 years. In 2008, he paid $67.50 for the Main Mall assessment fee. After the tax for the ballpark was created, this fee was multiplied by more than 1,000. Last year, Price paid $6,900 for the assessment.
"The amount came as a surprise," he said. "It's horribly unfair when you're a mile and a half away from the stadium. They just took $7,000 right off the bottom line of my business."
Price has not been able to make up for this loss with higher sales either. His business, which sells wholesale general merchandise, has not been getting the new customers that others have been seeing near the ballpark.
Other property owners, too, have seen huge increases. Because its property cuts such a wide swatch through the warehouse/bricktown district, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad will be paying almost a total of $5 million over the course of the next 30 years due to the tax.
An assessment tax can be used if it will directly benefit the property being taxed. Because Price said he is suffering rather than benefiting, he and almost 25 other property owners hired lawyer Kirsten Bernhardt to challenge the legality of the tax in court.
Bernhardt said much of the district being taxed was primarily an industrial area.
"An entertainment district is contrary to their purpose," she said. "It's a backdoor condemnation."
The two cases in court are challenging the creation of the assessment district and stating the city cannot assess people for a baseball field. Bernhardt's clients, which include everything from a chromium plating company to warehouse owners, are not gaining anything from the ballpark, they say.
"Assessments are for street lights and sewers -- a clear direct benefit for your property," she said.
Several city leaders argue the addition of the ballpark and the redevelopment of downtown will increase property values for these owners.
"That's wild speculation," Bernhardt said. "They don't want to sell their property. That doesn't help them."
Even if Price did decide to move on to a different part of Tulsa, the tax has actually decreased the value of his property. Buyers will not want to buy property with a $7,000 tax attached to it, he said.
Property owners such as Price will have to wait until a decision is made in court to find out if they have truly struck out.
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