City officials concerned about a declining retail sales base got another reason to be worried recently with the release of U.S. Census figures that showed continued strong growth for the suburbs, while Tulsa's population increase was minimal.
The figures, covering a one-year period that concluded in July 2009, showed the population of several of Tulsa's bedroom communities growing at a much faster rate than the city itself. Tulsa's population growth was only 1 percent, while Owasso grew 4.9 percent, Jenks grew 3.8 percent, Glenpool grew 4.5 percent and Bixby grew 3.7 percent. Catoosa led the way among all Tulsa suburbs with 9.1 percent growth.
Those figures would seem to indicate that more money than ever is being spent at retail sales establishments outside the city of Tulsa -- a serious problem for city officials who are trying to maintain or grow the city's sales tax revenues, the biggest contributor to the municipal government's general fund.
Although the Census figures were disappointing, they did not come as a surprise to many city officials. Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr. was particularly concerned about Tulsa's relatively flat growth.
"That, to me, is a huge red flag," he said. "We need to do everything we can to attract people to the city of Tulsa. When that increase does come, that will pretty much solve whatever economic problems we're having."
More residents equal more people working equals more disposable income equals more sales tax revenue, Bartlett figures.
But reversing the current trend won't be easy. District 6 City Councilor Jim Mautino believes the city has been its own worst enemy in some respects.
"Tulsa isn't paying attention to where our water and sewer lines are going," he said.
He traces that problem to his first term on the council in 2004.
"Several of us on the council then raised the red flag," he said, explaining that he and other councilors were opposed to the construction of water and sewer facilities that ultimately would serve other communities.
"What does development need? It needs water and sewer and streets," Mautino said. "They were able to do the streets, but for those communities not to have to put in a water treatment plant gives them a huge advantage there. Those bedroom communities continue to turn into the city of Tulsa's competition for sales tax. It sure is hurting our city."
Mautino believes it's long past time for Tulsa officials to turn their full attention to the situation.
"Tulsa can work on improving what they have. You can't let an entire shopping center sit there empty," he said, referring to this district's once-thriving Eastland Mall, but now home to such entities as a Coca-Cola Enterprises Inc. office, a state driver's license testing site, as well as the adjacent Eastland Plaza shopping center across 21st St.
Earlier this year, District 8 Councilor Bill Christiansen spearheaded the city's creation of the Shop Tulsa initiative, a Web site that helps connect shoppers with Tulsa stores, products and services.
The website was particularly intended to help stem the tide of online shopping done by Tulsans from which the city receives no sales tax.
Christiansen said the project has had a slow start because it is being done with no city funding, but he is confident it will have more of an impact as time goes by. He also has espoused the creation of a city retail sales specialist to help promote growth in that area.
PlaniTulsa, Where Art Thou?
But Christiansen is particularly enthused about the potential he sees in the city's comprehensive plan update that is currently being completed. The recommendations included in the PLANiTULSA document were scheduled to be voted on by the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission on July 6, if it isn't delayed yet once again, before heading to the City Council for final approval.
"When we get a new comprehensive plan, hopefully, it will create more solidness to our zoning and allow our city to create more infill," he said.
That aspect of the plan is crucial, Christiansen believes.
"We need to regain the confidence of the citizens that if you move and buy a home here, we'll have a good, effective zoning ordinance that will protect you as best as possible," he said. "I think the comprehensive plan is the answer in the long term."
Christiansen said he'd also like to see the city's permitting process for new development become more customer friendly.
"That's something we've talked about on the council," he said.
The mayor also believes the comprehensive plan update can play an important role in making Tulsa a more attractive place for young people.
"This creates a real visible declaration that this community wants to be aggressive to do whatever we can to use our existing infrastructure in a positive way and create the kind of lifestyle opportunities that appeal to young, up-and-comers and our future community leaders," he said.
There are other efforts underway, as well, he said. Bartlett pointed to the city's aggressiveness in trying to sell several of its downtown plots to developers.
"The city of Tulsa owns a lot of land in the downtown area," he said. "When I became mayor, one of the first things I did was direct the city staff to sell our land. The purpose for that was two-fold. No. 1, to get that land back on the tax rolls, which will help the school system. Second, a lot of that land is strategically located, and we need to sell it to companies that will develop it into single-family housing, apartments, lofts and other businesses that take advantage of the reinvestment opportunities that are available downtown. If people begin to move downtown, that brings in other people from out of town and out of state. We're still in the process of selling some of that land, and we've had good success doing that."
Bartlett said the city also has been involved with talks with Howard Barnett, president of Oklahoma State University-Tulsa, about land adjacent to and part of the school's campus. Bartlett would like to focus on attracting research firms to those sites, companies that would be affiliated with the university while bringing in dozens of high-paying jobs.
"That's going to be a big, big deal," he said.
The mayor also held five business forums around the city in recent months in an effort to hear what business leaders had to say. One common complaint was that many companies that win contracts with the city are firms from other states that have tax policies that give their businesses an advantage that Tulsa or Oklahoma firms don't enjoy.
After hearing that, Bartlett said Tulsa officials helped engineer the passage of a local-preference law by the state Legislature this year that creates more of a level playing field for companies competing for city contracts.
"That supports jobs in Tulsa," he said.
Bartlett said there are many factors contributing to the rapid increase in population in the suburbs that are beyond the control of his administration -- the public school system, for instance -- but he believes it's a problem Tulsa no longer can afford to ignore.
"For a variety of reasons, we really haven't come to grips with our need to pursue people," he said, recalling that for many years, Jim Norton, then-president of the now-defunct Downtown Tulsa Unlimited, was telling anyone who would listen about downtown's need for an influx of residents.
"We now are seeing that," Bartlett said. "We are seeing a very, very large increase in lofts and apartments, all sorts of activity. If you go downtown at night, you will see a lot of people walking around because of the ballpark and the BOK Center and all the new restaurants and bars, and that means people are living there. That's an example of a real renaissance in Tulsa. These people aren't just coming out of thin air."
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