Mayor Dewey Bartlett walked into his new office facing one of the most devastating city budgets in decades, just weeks after telling voters he would be the "job-gettingest mayor this city has ever seen." Now, Mayor Bartlett shows signs he has changed that goal while facing a 7.5 percent Tulsa Metro unemployment rate reported in March and an economy continuing to crumble around him.
After taking office in December, Mayor Bartlett was not making headlines with a remedy for a declining economy, but he was able to make national news when 124 police officers were laid off. For Tulsans, this was not the sign they were looking for that promised new growth and stabilization in the city's economy, but Bartlett's director of economic development said cuts in the budget were necessary in order to get on the path toward recovery.
"While stabilizing the economy is influenced greatly at the national and international level, Mayor Bartlett has done his part by getting our city on a more solid financial footing as far as our budget is concerned," said director of economic development Mike Bunney. "(The) Mayor believes that we must face the economic realities of the present and stop spending outside our means and has made budget decisions based on those principles."
After the mayor had listened to a majority of Tulsa's Fraternal Order of Police, he sat down to listen to another group -- business owners and entrepreneurs in Tulsa. During March and April, the mayor held five business forums, promoted on the City of Tulsa website to "better facilitate growth and remove roadblocks in the way of prosperity for Tulsa businesses."
"At every one of these meetings we ask the same fundamental question -- what can we do to get out of the way and roll out the red carpet instead of the red tape?" Bunney said. "What we hear from these meetings are that we need a more rational sign code, that we need to continue to develop infrastructure but at a pace that gets streets, storm water, water and sewer improvements done more rapidly and does not impact business for long periods of time, that we need to continue to work on our permitting process and business inspections.
"We also hear that we need to start planning for industrial growth at the airport and in our transportation and warehousing sectors, and that businesses feel that some of our city expenditures could be spent closer to home with local firms versus out-of-state suppliers."
Although the business forums wrapped up in April, Bartlett said he is keeping conversations open with these businesses.
"We are continuing to look at the feedback we received from the business forum series and meeting with businesses one-on-one to achieve this goal," he said.
While the majority of these ideas have not been implemented with the last business forum in April, both the Tulsa's aerospace industries have been receiving some attention from the city.
"We intend to continue building infrastructure at Tulsa International and Jones Riverside (airports) to support growth," Bunney said. "We are largely completely leased out at Jones Riverside and need to extend infrastructure to new areas at Tulsa International in order to support growth."
Through a federal grant and passenger facility charges, Tulsa International Airport has been able to redevelop parts of the airport and begin reconstructing a terminal, said Jeff Hough, deputy airports director for engineering and facilities. The Tulsa Industrial Authority built a hangar that is leased out to American Airlines, which helped retain jobs. However, growth in terms of the number of employees has not been seen in Tulsa.
Mayor Bartlett said Tulsa has been successful in dodging cuts in the aerospace industry.
"Our aerospace industry is fairing far better compared to other cities across the region such as Wichita, Dallas and Ft. Worth, who have had massive lay-offs in the aerospace industry," he said.
Bunney used M&M Manufacturing as an example that the aerospace industry is on its way toward thriving in Tulsa. M&M Manufacturing, a machining and fabrication facility that makes parts for aircraft, healthcare businesses, oilfields, automotives and electronics, announced the addition of about 30 jobs this year. This company was one of eight Tulsa employers that announced they would be hiring a total of 361 employees this year in Tulsa.
"The announcements ... are an indication that companies large and small are ready to make hiring commitments for the remainder of the year," said Mike Neal, president and CEO of the Tulsa Metro Chamber of Commerce. "Although we can't know for sure, their commitment, combined with what we are hearing from our business retention efforts, are a cause to be optimistic."
These additional jobs are at least a glimpse of hope toward a more prosperous future for the city of Tulsa. However, these businesses did not necessarily receive help from the city to become successful.
Bearwood Concepts, Inc. was one of these companies that announced the possible addition of up to 30 employees this year, with 10 of those hired just this month. For Bearwood Concepts, it was not any municipality that helped them explode from six founders in March 2009 to almost 50 total employees today. This company happened to be able to be successful in this type of economy because that very climate caused most of its competition to close their doors.
In fact, Bearwood Concepts, which does architectural millwork such as cabinets, crown molding, trim and fixtures, is composed of a majority of people who came from Penloyd LLC, which went under in January 2009, leaving more than 180 Tulsans unemployed.
The six founders of Bearwood Concepts, all former employees of Penloyd, saw their opportunity to feel the void left behind by the collapse of Penloyd and other companies.
"We are very excited to put people back to work," said Travis Ogle, vice president of operations and sales. "It feels really good to be able to reach out to those who lost so much."
This company was able to grow quickly into a local success story with a little help from the Tulsa Metro Chamber of Commerce. The TMCC helped guide Bearwood Concepts to become qualified for the state's Quality Jobs incentive program for new businesses.
Getting help from people who understand ways to make it through the shaky economy can help a number of Tulsans, said Darcy Melendez, executive director for Workforce Tulsa. Workforce Tulsa and Workforce Oklahoma, which help the unemployed find work through employment and training programs, is able to help Tulsans because of the city of Tulsa. The city is the grant recipient for a portion of the funds used to operate Workforce Oklahoma.
By continuing to aid places like Workforce Tulsa, Mayor Bartlett is sticking to his promise of bringing jobs to Tulsa, Melendez said.
Perhaps in this economy, the definition of "job-gettingest mayor" has altered into a goal to keep the programs that work, keep conversations open and keep Tulsans from slipping into the group of unemployed.
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