A joint project by the city and the University of Tulsa will allow Tulsa to measure a series of key economic development indicators and compare its strengths and weaknesses to those of 10 of its peer cities in the region.
The Tulsa Competitive Challenge Project, as the undertaking is being called, will focus on 17 economic development indicators and is the major element in the first step of Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr.'s 10-point strategy for building the city's economic future.
That first step -- assessing Tulsa's competitive advantages and focusing market opportunities on those advantages -- will be buoyed by completion of the project, which Terry Simonson, the mayor's chief of staff, said is expected to come by September or October. At that point, Simonson said, the mayor will convene a large group of economic development leaders to focus on how the findings are addressed and create a plan for responding to priorities.
"That's a huge piece for planning purposes," Simonson said of the project. "How do you beat your competitors if you don't know where you're weak on the field?"
The indicators that will be evaluated are the kind of data that businesses consider when making relocation and expansion decisions, Simonson said. The list of indicators to be explored includes the poverty level, the cost of living, housing affordability, education level, total jobs, the number of creative jobs, average annual wage, per capita income, the metro area's gross domestic product and the unemployment rate.
A handful of students under the direction of Dr. Mark Collins from TU's Collins College of Business already are at work on the project, which has a budget of $25,000. Simonson said TU officials have applied for a grant for that amount from the state's Economic Development Generating Excellence Fund's policy board, which meets quarterly to consider making investments in research and technology projects that can be made in key Oklahoma business sectors, according to the organization's website.
"It may be that we need to respond with some legislation next year or maybe share with nonprofit organizations where they could turn their mission and purpose in a way that would help," he said. "I think this kind of data really gives you a compass."
While administration officials regard the project as crucial to their economic development efforts, they say it is only one part of a much larger effort to promote job growth in the city. The mayor believes the focus of economic development itself has changed in recent years.
"At one time, it was all about more smokestacks in town," he said in a statement. "Then it was luring high-tech companies to the city. This was followed by the idea of 'clustering' similar businesses together. Today, the evolution of economic development has evolved further into what could be termed 'economic development gardening,' where the focus is on the growing, nurturing and expanding of the business assets which already exist in Tulsa."
Bartlett claims that through the joint efforts of the city and the Tulsa Metro Chamber, nearly 3,000 new jobs have been created in Tulsa over the past 17 months, while the number is approximately 4,800 new jobs for the region since Bartlett took office in December 2009.
That has helped the Tulsa area weather the economic downturn much better than some communities and achieve an unemployment rate of 5.6 percent in April -- well below the national rate and 2 points below where it stood in the metro area a year ago.
"This job growth doesn't happen by accident, and it doesn't happen quickly," the mayor said. "They come as a result of specific strategies which we have developed over the past year and a half. We coordinate our strategies with the efforts of both the chamber and the state so that together we will continue to build Tulsa's future prosperity."
The other steps in the mayor's economic development strategy include focusing on basic city services and the concerns of citizens so they will have the confidence to support a broader economic development agenda, creating a business-friendly environment at City Hall, promoting mixed-use development along the Arkansas River, placing a strategic focus on the privatization of selected city services, strengthening the factors that improve the quality of life and public safety agenda, focusing on economic development "gardening," promoting the geographic location of Tulsa, building on the city's oil and gas legacy, and keeping and rebuilding Tulsa's infrastructure.
"The biggest, brightest economic development opportunity we started this year was the (request for proposals) on the river," he said, comparing the potential impact of that project to the creation of a major shopping mall. "The next big thing after you get past arenas and ballparks is the river."
Proposals for development of the property on the west bank of the river will be accepted over the next several weeks before they are reviewed.
"We are expecting to know by this fall which of the responders might be worthy of us bringing to Tulsa for an interview," Simonson said.
The mayor's chief of staff pointed to the recent hiring of two new employees -- a development services coordinator and a retail specialist -- as further demonstration of the administration's commitment to building inroads to the business community. The development services coordinator serves as a liaison and ombudsman to the business community, while the retail specialist will help city and business officials assess where retail opportunities might be expanded or initiated.
Simonson also believes the administration's commitment to completing the Gilcrease Expressway is a vital element in the region's long-term prospects for prosperity. A long-awaited feasibility study by the state Department of Transportation on completion of the project will be presented this fall, he said, giving city and state officials an idea of what they need to do to finish the roadway.
"Given that it's been on the books since the 1950s, we're going to get it done," Simonson said. "We hope that completing the Gilcrease Expressway will have the same economic development impact on west and north Tulsa that the Creek Turnpike had on south and east Tulsa."
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