"I believe streetcars are symbolic of the changes Tulsans said they wanted to see in our vision for a new and improved Tulsa," said Bill Leighty, a real estate entrepreneur and member of the Transportation Advisory Board.
Leighty is exploring the idea of running for mayor in 2013. He's also a charismatic proponent of our city's comprehensive plan and a firebrand with a vision for Tulsa's future.
But Leighty isn't alone in aiming for the mayor's office next year. Former city councilor and local businessman Bill Christiansen has also announced an exploratory committee for T-Town's top spot. And, of course, our current top dog, Mayor Dewey F. Bartlett Jr., is definitely interested in running for a second term.
A new mayor won't take office for another 20 months, with an election slated for November 2013. It'll be an interesting campaign season because after a popular vote last year, Tulsa elections will now be held without an important identifier on the ballot. You won't find party identifiers (no more Rs and Ds) to lead you to vote along party lines anymore -- our elections are now politics-free, right?
Time will tell if non-partisan elections will truly free up candidates to talk about the issues, or whether people will now choose to vote on name recognition alone.
But in the meantime, let's take a trolley tour through the mayor's office with a few pit stops to chat with Leighty and Christiansen and even Mary Beth Babcock (she's our number one choice for "Mayor of Public Art") along the way.
Mayor Bartlett is nothing if not a realist. Though his office is on the fifteenth floor of City Hall, his feet are firmly planted on the ground. Check the Gingrichian dreams of glory at the door of his office -- the man is focused on dollars and cents. And that's just fine by many Tulsans.
Job creation in the energy industry and further economic development are two of the top priorities for Bartlett. "Anybody can have a lot of great ideas. They can have ideas out the kazoo but if you don't have anything to pay for them, or if they're giving people false hope, well..." He trails off and then makes a zero sign with his hands. He doesn't have time for that.
Tulsa's mayor is different from say, the mayor of Oklahoma City, in some important ways. Rather than just a figurehead who cuts ribbons and holds babies, our mayor must also handle the city of Tulsa's daily operations and manage 4,000 employees. With a strong mayor-city council form of government, the office of the mayor requires a blend of fierce manager and magnetic politician -- it's the kind of balance that's tough to find in any one individual. Add in a rocky economy and record drought -- among other challenges -- to kick off his first days in office, and you have a nearly impossible task for anyone.
But so far, Bartlett is handling the job. On his first day in office on Dec. 7, 2009, the city's Chief Financial Officer Mike Kier walked into Bartlett's office around 11:30am with a "long look on his face," he said.
The city was on a crash course, hurtling toward bankruptcy. Bartlett said he doesn't blame any previous administration for the fiscal disaster he inherited on his first day in office.
But, he said, Tulsa's economic situation "was much worse than we thought. And it was getting worse."
Kier told him, Bartlett remembered, "'We're going to be out of cash in three or four months. We'll have to file for bankruptcy.'
"And that was my first day. Obviously, we didn't want to do that so we had to make some very serious, quick decisions. But we didn't want to do the same old stuff of just laying people off without a plan. So we had to find a way to manage our way out of this problem without raising taxes," he said.
"That's what I'm so proud of," he said. "It's fairly basic, we just decided to live within our own means and not tax our way out of the problem."
One of the first things he did was commission an efficiency study through KPMG. Ultimately, the savings from implementing practical strategies -- like cost-sharing with Tulsa County and turning off more lights in city buildings -- saved the city from bankruptcy and the jobs of 150 police officers and firefighters.
The cost-saving strategies from the KPMG efficiency study have saved the city $30-$35 million, Bartlett said. The study and the strategies "allowed us to restore all of the government city services that were taken away by a previous administration as well as our administration to balance the budget," Bartlett said.
Four people in the mayor's office, who make up the Management Review Office, are working through the rest of the 1,100 recommendations to save the city even more money, he said.
"We've made some huge positive changes in a severe economic climate," Bartlett said. "The worst thing we can do is raise taxes in a recession, but most people do it because it's easier."
So for now, rather than reaching for our streetcar dreams, Bartlett has his eyes on job creation and economic development. These two elements, he said, "Set the sail for the future."
He said he focuses "on what a job is and what it gives a person. A job gives a person a lot of self-satisfaction, a lot of confidence, a lot of capability" in addition to allowing a person to "support himself or herself and their family."
Recently, Bartlett said the city will be able to "hire an experienced oil and gas consultant to help me with going out and spreading the word about Tulsa being the center of the universe, as far as I'm concerned, for oil and gas companies and for the entirety of the energy spectrum."
The former Oil Capital of the World still counts more than 100,000 energy-related jobs within its metropolitan limits. "They are the number one job creator in the city right now. Plus, [energy jobs] pay very, very well," Bartlett said.
And he should know. Bartlett, who also runs Keener Oil & Gas Co., has been in the lucrative business for 30 years. He's vastly knowledgeable about the oil and gas industry, and when he calls Tulsa the "center of the universe" he isn't be facetious. He said he's "staking the flag, very officially" for Tulsa to rise again as the world's center for all types of energy work.
The way Bartlett sees it, everything may be bigger in Texas, but bigger doesn't always translate into better. In Houston, for example, "They've got great things there. Lots of stuff, bigger museums, more oil and gas, more business, more this, more that ... More traffic. More crime. Fewer educational institutions of the quality we have here in Tulsa. A lot of humidity, even more than us," Bartlett said. He also mentioned overcrowded cell phone towers and longer commute times and hotter summers.
In Tulsa, he contrasted, "We've got a great downtown. We've got a ball park. We've got the BOK Arena, one of the most active in ticket sales the last three years. Great shows. Great people. Crime is at a very manageable level. Government works well, we're good examples. We have the most generous population of any city I've ever been in, by a long shot."
Plus, more trees, a river, and lots of energy-centric educational opportunities, from high school classes to Tulsa Community College, from the University of Tulsa to local, affordable campuses for Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma.
With his new oil and gas consultant, Bartlett hopes to bring more and more energy-related jobs home to roost in Green Country: Where things may not be bigger, but they certainly are better.
While listening to Leighty talk about his vision for Tulsa, about streetcars and walkable, sustainable communities, about bike lanes and sidewalks, it's hard not to get excited.
The lifelong red-blooded Republican said the GOP "left him a long time ago." But he doesn't believe politics has a place in municipal elections anyway. So why does the McGraw Realtors real estate broker want to step up to the plate now? "This is a critical time," Leighty said. "For everyone to step up, not just me. We're at a turning point. We're really not in a very good financial position. The only reason we're not bankrupt is because of deferred maintenance. The bill is going to come due. So we have to have a new strategy, and some new ways of doing things."
The native Tulsan has worked on a number of important boards, including a land use task force and the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission. Leighty sees Tulsa in terms of people, of living space, of quality of life. He's inspired and inspiring because of the expansive city comprehensive plan, which was adopted by the City Council in July 2010.
In the years since the plan was adopted, there hasn't been much forward motion. In recession years, it's easy to forget about quality of life indicators while we're all flustered over basic necessities. But when the economy rises again, will Tulsa be stripped bare or ready to rise to the occasion?
Leighty said it's too early to announce a run for mayor, but in the meantime, he's weighing his options and talking to Tulsans about what's most important to them. He's compiled a preliminary list of issues that came out of the discussions he's had so far.
His top priorities include improving quality of life and building a sustainable future; increasing population density and revitalizing our inter-city neighborhoods; building a world-class transportation system; employing sound business practices in all aspects of government; developing sensible economic development initiatives that benefit Tulsans first; supporting continued revitalization of downtown Tulsa; maximizing Arkansas River resources; supporting Tulsa River Parks Authority; and improving Riverside Drive.
A big part of making all these priorities happen, he said, is getting capital improvement spending in line with the comprehensive plan's goals. "People are concerned that it's not playing out that way," he said. "The growing costs of maintaining our streets and the growing costs of our police and fire budgets have been at the expense of spending for other important quality of life things like parks and recreation."
Leighty would also like to see the city invest more in our transit system. The buses stop running early, and there is only limited service on Saturday, and none at all on Sundays. But the biggest problem, Leighty said, "is the frequency. They average once an hour."
Again, our comprehensive plan called for a "better-performing bus service, rapid transit, light rail," he said. Leighty would like to see the "old culture and old way of thinking" at City Hall go right out the window. "We need to focus on a broader, more transparent process of evaluating projects based on their long-term sustainable return on investment," Leighty said. "We need to make sure all of our own investments are well-thought-out, and have a long-term benefit."
Being the mayor isn't just about dealing with challenges -- it's about recognizing opportunities, too. And breaking Tulsa out of its polite, auto-and-suburb-centric mold is part of that. Combining mixed-use redevelopment and revitalization of Tulsa's core neighborhoods with a strong, top-tier transportation system would be part of that.
Making Tulsa more bicycle friendly is a part of that. And borrowing ideas from some of the nation's most popular, successful cities may also be a part of that, according to Leighty. When we look across the country, cities like Portland and Austin, with thriving creative classes and living, breathing downtown districts, stand out.
"I don't necessarily want [Tulsa] to be Portland," Leighty said. But Portland is one of the most bicycle friendly cities in the world, and Leighty would like to see Tulsa's trail system connected to the rest of the city in a purposeful way. "I would make a goal to give Tulsa gold status as a bicycle friendly city," he said. "The more people we can take out of automobiles, reduce pollution and carbon emissions and cost of maintenance," the better off we are, he said.
"There's no question that we have enormous challenges in front of us, but we can't just focus on the challenges," Leighty said. "We have to focus on the opportunities... we have to be far-reaching in our thinking and our approach to solving problems."
Leighty may not be the most moneyed candidate, but he definitely has the freshest ideas. "Why me and why now?" he asked. "It's really about bringing things to the public attention that really are the key issues that should be debated and talked about."
Leighty is ready and raring to go. "I say, let's do it! Let's act now! Let's for shoot for the stars. Let's be the very best Tulsa that we can be!"
Bill Christiansen sat on the City Council representing District 8 for a decade. For the past 40 years, he's also owned and run a business, Christiansen Aviation.
And now, the busy small businessman is announcing his exploratory committee for a future mayoral campaign. "I really feel with my business background, as a small businessman with employees, and living through good times and bad times economically, and having the wealth of knowledge I received on the City Council," he said, "I really think that makes me a good, qualified candidate to be mayor of Tulsa."
Christiansen has developed a loose platform of ideas that he would run on if and when he announces his run for mayor. "I think that it's time somebody became mayor who will think outside the box and initiate some things that will help create jobs and develop the community economically better," he said.
He points to some big wins he had while he was a city councilor. Christiansen said he fought for and "finally got a retail development specialist in Tulsa" (Tammy Fate, who UTW featured in our city section in the March 22 issue). He was involved in the ShopTulsa.org movement.
He was also instrumental in pushing the Tulsa Hills Shopping Center plan forward. "Tulsa Hills is a 'TIF,' a tax increment finance district," Christiansen explained, "which is a tremendous tool we have with the real ability to create lots of jobs in Tulsa."
Not only that, but it also creates a "lot of additional sales tax revenue for additional things we think we need to be doing within city government," Christiansen said.
As far as retail development goes, he'd like to see Tulsa go yet another step further. "I believe we need to have strategically located small Tulsa offices in areas of the country where it is difficult to do business," he said.
For example, he said, "California is an unfriendly business state, so we need to have someone with their feet on the ground, their ear to the ground, going out and beating the bushes to sell the great attributes Tulsa has to offer for business."
In addition to developing Tulsa's economy, Christiansen would also like to focus on public safety. "I believe in my heart that we need more police officers and we may also need more firemen," he said. "If people don't feel safe in the city of Tulsa, we will decay internally."
Christiansen's platform would include planks for neighborhood vitality and revitalization, too. "A good city councilor friend of mine told me many years ago, 'Tulsa is made up of neighborhoods,'" he said.
"Right now we're going through a lot of foreclosures... and I believe we need stricter ordinances on foreclosed houses," Christiansen said. "Those houses end up being owned by some big XYZ bank in New York City, and they sit and deteriorate, they don't mow the lawn and there's vandalism," he said. Christiansen would like to see tougher ordinances on foreclosed homes owned by lending institutions.
"The last thing we want is for an abandoned house to be sitting in the neighborhood," he said. "A man's home is his biggest investment, so we as a city or if I were mayor, we'd need to protect the citizen."
Christiansen also mentioned the comprehensive plan. "Without throwing stones at anyone, I'd like to accelerate that process and get to that end goal," he said.
As a former south Tulsa city councilor, Christiansen is uniquely informed and has been intimately involved with street issues. "I think it's really important to pay attention to the things that have been done to help traffic flow in Tulsa," he said. "For example, I found money in my last term to increase the number of people involved in traffic flow synchronization."
This would aid in the flow of traffic during peak periods -- the morning and evening rush hours, according to Christiansen.
Another issue he'd like to address is openness and transparency in government, he said. "I would immediately commission a sunshine review task force -- a task force of citizens and probably some city officials to seek input to help make city government more accessible and transparent to the average citizen," he said.
"I think citizens are feeling a little detached from their government," he said. "With the TARE board (Tulsa Authority for the Recovery of Energy, or trash board) and trash issues, people are very frustrated with how that whole thing came down."
Based on his constituents' input while he was on the council, Christiansen said, "I think the system is broken... People that sit on the TARE board, three of them and now two of them, have had expired terms... When Mayor Bartlett opted not to reappoint or appoint new people for those with expired terms, it eliminated the little bit of input that the citizens had."
In this interview Christiansen outlined his platform, but more information will come available once he declares his candidacy officially. Check out his website for new information at billchristiansenformayor.com.
In the meantime, let's jump into the streetcar and ride to our final stop with Mary Beth Babcock and a few possible future candidates in this magical mystery mayor tour.
Along with Bartlett, Leighty and Christiansen, there are some other possible mayoral hopefuls, too. They include Lucky Lamons, a Democrat and former State House Representative; GT Bynum, Republican, current District 9 City Councilor and grandson of former Tulsa Mayor Robert LaFortune; Tom Adelson, former Democratic candidate for mayor and current District 33 State Senator; and even former Mayor Kathy Taylor, who is busily finishing a Harvard fellowship that wraps this semester.
And for a walk on the wild side, we have Mary Beth Babcock, the 2012 Oklahoman of the Year, Tulsa artist and owner of Dwelling Spaces. While she wouldn't consider running for mayor of T-Town, Babcock said she would consider being the mayor of a "fun downtown."
Or "fun-ky town," she quipped.
In her ultimate dream for Tulsa's burgeoning, funky, fun, weird, gorgeous downtown, Babcock imagines some pretty awesome stuff. We asked Babcock to give us a lowdown on her hopes for the place she calls home, and she was happy to oblige.
On Babcock's shortlist of must-haves: A version or branch of Circle Cinema downtown; massive public arts projects, to be reviewed by a board of her appointing; organic grocery store and farmers market with live music; an annual record convention; a Tulsa Museum of Art; and a downtown reopening for Bell's Amusement Park.
She said she'd also love to see the long-promised Oklahoma POP Museum "come to life," in a Willy Wonka-style downtown streetscape. Imagine lollipop street lamps and a peppermint pavement lined with cars that run on hot cocoa instead of gasoline. Gumball parking meters -- all parking would be free in Babcock's ideal dream downtown -- would pop out candy to reward visitors.
Babcock would also love to see more "friendly people who worked toward achieving positive goals," and more excitement over "public art and beautifying our surroundings," she said.
Round out these ideas with a new music festival (in the vein of the now-defunct D-Fest) and more walkable streets where "walkers are rewarded with sensory experiences ranging from public art to active storefronts to attractive landscaping and sidewalk amenities," Babcock said. "Each community approaches street character in its own way, all share the attribute of active, vibrant storefronts and cafes that engage the pedestrian."
She said she's "thrilled to have the Woody Guthrie archives moving to Tulsa." Someone grab a pen and mark a check off Babcock's fun downtown must-have list.
This fiery artist said the main thing that makes her love Tulsa is Cain's Ballroom. "I feel fortunate," she said. As Mayor of Fun Downtown, Babcock would include "board meetings full of delicious organic fruits where we brainstorm about public art all day and then go out and paint and create!" she said.
You still here? Go on, get on the streetcar, be the mayor of wherever you are. Fun Town and Tulsa are already spoken for right now, but there are a zillion other places and spaces around here that need your tender loving care, your attention, your enthusiastic adoration, your own brand of ribbon-cutting and touting, your management skills, your thoughtful charisma, your vision, your ideas and your love. Get on this streetcar and ride.
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