Three years ago when Tulsa hosted the PGA Championship, the Tulsa Metro Chamber of Commerce's president and CEO Mike Neal found himself stuck in an awkward spot. Media, fans and the pros themselves had some questions -- questions that were adding to Neal's drive to see his city change.
"Several of them were staying downtown," Neal said. "Their comment to me was 'What do you guys do? Do you roll up your sidewalks at 5? We've been down here during the day, and we know there's a whole bunch of cars and people, but we walk down your streets after 5, and there is nobody to be seen.
"'Your downtown is dead.'"
But now, after three years of development and redevelopment, Neal said he is able to look at the transformation that has been made downtown with pride as well as astonishment with the amount of work completed. However, Neal is not even close to calling those changes a successful finale to the development of Tulsa's epicenter.
"It's beginning to work," Neal said. "We're beginning to see the fruits of a lot of people's efforts for many years, but we're also beginning to recognize what extraordinary potential we have."
Because of this, a new position and department within the Tulsa Metro Chamber of Commerce has been created specifically to generate more growth in downtown and to ensure that this part of the city will, once again, be unrecognizable in another three years, Neal said.
In late July, the Chamber hired its new executive director of downtown development. Delise Tomlinson, who has been a city planner for the past 20 years, said she plans to not only aggressively attract jobs but will also work with those trying to redevelop in the area.
However, Tomlinson and the Chamber's new downtown development department must execute the goal of downtown revitalization differently than the method that has recently been adopted by the city, said Jeff Dunn, the Chamber's vice chair of community development and chair of the Downtown Coordination Council.
"The focus on retail development by the city is somewhat misguided," he said. "You're hearing economic development, and you're hearing 24/7 bodies downtown and the natural progression from that is retail traffic. But you have to focus on the cause of retail development. You attract retail by having the bodies and the demographics and the things to do downtown."
Neal said the Chamber must first focus on generating jobs to develop downtown.
"To have a grocery store or to have dry cleaners, you have to have the numbers to attract and sustain that," he said. "We have to continue to attract quality jobs to this community, and we've got to put as many of those that we can downtown.
"With a significant number of employees downtown, they have to have an adequate number of affordable, available housing options. Then, when you get enough people working and living downtown, then you get the entertainment venues and the other support."
To begin to successfully stimulate downtown, a large portion of Tomlinson's time will be dedicated toward working with the city to implement the newly unveiled Downtown Area Master Plan, Neal said.
This plan, presented to the public this past March and reintroduced July 15 at a public forum, took two years of interviewing and analyzing to create. Once finished, the Downtown Area Master Plan incorporated three key initiatives to better the core of the city: revive downtown, join the development of the River Parks to downtown and develop a local and regional commuter rail system.
The creator of the plan, Jack Crowley, is a University of Georgia College of Environment and Design professor and the former director of the Oklahoma Department of Transportation. In September, the plan is scheduled for a public hearing before the Tulsa Metro Area Planning Commission.
"A developed downtown and river don't just benefit (District 4 City Councilor) Maria Barnes and the downtown IDL," Dunn said. "The whole region benefits from a strong core."
The Chamber can work along with the downtown plan to attract jobs and locate businesses downtown, consequently creating more money for the city to use elsewhere, Dunn said.
"The Jack Crowley plan was predicated on bringing bodies downtown -- working, living and visiting downtown," he said. "If you do that, everything else will follow, including retail sales tax, which is what our city council and mayor are focused on unequivocally right now.
"Finally, we have a wonderful plan. Now, we just have to start chipping away at it."
But Neal said to initiate the goals in the plan, the downtown development department must make an effort to make it easier for new businesses downtown to do just that -- business.
"There will be bureaucratic barriers that a city, county, state or federal government puts up," he said. "We have to be creative enough to knock those down, but we have to have relationships and have to be friends with those people who will be energized about trying to help us remove those barriers."
If a business is unsure of codes, processes or who to speak to, plans for development could be stalled for 30 to 90 days, Tomlinson said. She plans to help expedite building permits and approvals while continuing communication between the city and the business to ease the development process.
The downtown development department will also assist with the implementation of connecting the River Parks development to downtown, another major goal in the Downtown Area Master Plan.
"When you're looking at locating to a community, you automatically identify that community by their downtown," Tomlinson said. "The more opportunities for doing things that enhance your quality of life, the more attractive you are as a community.
"River development is key."
And this development is already showing signs of igniting into a reality. With $25 million in state bond money being invested into Arkansas River development along with $50 million in federal dollars authorized for the Water Resources Development Act throughout the state, Dunn said he expects Tulsa's downtown to see significant benefits. In July, a bill appropriating $1.64 million of the $50 million previously authorized passed a Senate committee vote to fund studies to permit an Arkansas River development plan to progress. Neal said after investing state and federal dollars into river development, private investment will soon follow.
"Once we get that done, that's going to be as big of a change agent as anything we talk about," Dunn said.
With these various goals set before her, Tomlinson has begun her job at the Chamber by preparing to fit the pieces of a successful future together.
"Tulsa is beautiful," Tomlinson said. "We have beautiful bones, and the skin is starting to be put on them."
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