The region's single largest private employer would seem to cast a long shadow.
But Mayor Dewey Bartlett isn't keen on referencing American Airlines when discussing the proposed Vision2 extension of a sales tax hike approved by voters in 2003.
"This is an economic development package for the entirety of our county," Bartlett said, calling the package "focused on the aerospace-aviation industry as well as any industry, any company that is interested in moving into this area."
Bartlett spoke at a city hall news conference Aug. 15 announcing a series of town hall meetings to solicit public input for projects to be funded by a part of the Vision2 ballot proposal.
Asked if the main reason behind the timing of the package was tied to American Airlines, Bartlett answered, "No, it is not." Asked in an interview after the press conference if the package would have been put on the ballot without the American Airline turmoil, Bartlett answered, "I think so."
American Airlines employs roughly 7,000 workers in Tulsa and has said it plans to lay off more than 2,000 workers, though recent union negotiations will no doubt reshape the final tally. But the most Bartlett would allow was that the company's struggles have brought more attention to the need to upgrade aging facilities.
Bartlett noted that the sites in need of improvement are where roughly 13,000 go to work each day. It's a theme that has been voiced by other regional leaders.
Jim Fram, senior vice president for the Tulsa Metro Chamber, described the economic development proposal in an Aug. 9 meeting of the Tulsa County Board of Commissioners. On Aug. 13, the commissioners voted to put on the ballot separate economic and capital improvement extensions of the Vision 2025 sales tax hike.
If both packages are approved, the six-tenths sales tax hike approved in 2003 -- originally set to expire Jan. 1, 2017 -- would be extended through 2029, potentially generating more than $740 million in revenue to fund projects.
Fram described the airport-industrial area, which would potentially receive up to $254 million in upgrades based on Vision2 ballot language. The area encompasses approximately 640 acres and 76 buildings, he said.
"There are about 6.5 million square feet of existing buildings out there that were constructed at the beginning of World War II to manufacture bomber-type airplanes," Fram told commissioners.
Like Bartlett would days later, he minimized the importance of American Airlines in moving forward with proposed upgrades.
"This didn't start with the recent reorganization of one of the tenants," Fram said. "This is a process that ... the chamber has been working on for a number of years."
Bartlett said at the news conference that the goal is to "operate facilities that will maintain any plane that's flying in the world today by a major airline."
The Vision2 economic development component also includes a fund that would be available for general economic incentives. Bartlett and other proponents have said such a fund -- which might fund land or building expenditures, for example -- could make the difference between landing a business prospect or having them create jobs elsewhere.
"Other cities, other communities have that opportunity, and it puts us at a disadvantage, competitively," Bartlett said at the press conference, adding, "We feel that all things being equal, we'll win that race."
Much less clearly defined is the second part of the proposal for which project ideas are being solicited from the public. City leaders are touting the need for public participation at five public forum meetings, the first of which is scheduled for 5:30pm, Aug. 27, at Tulsa Webster High School Auditorium, 1919 West 40th St.
After the five meetings, the last of which is scheduled for Sept. 7, Bartlett said a list of projects will emerge.
"The process is that the city council will have a resolution that they will pass, hopefully by roughly mid-September," Bartlett said. "At that point, that resolution will have specific projects which we will all support."
Bartlett listed "focusing on the river, focusing on the Gilcrease Expressway, focusing on the zoo," as well as opportunities to work with "our major educational institutions" as possible projects, noting that some of these ideas will be presented at the public forums.
G.T. Bynum, chairman of the council, said in an interview he would like to see low-water dams built on the Arkansas River, a technical feat that would make the water level more consistent and, proponents say, the area more appealing for recreational use and potential economic development -- though others have expressed concern that further development would rob the area of green space and the natural appeal of the river's edge. In 2007, county voters rejected a sales tax hike to pay for improvements to the river.
At the press conference, Bynum said he expects the process to play out like a 2008 initiative called Fix Our Streets, in which voters ultimately approved extending two sales tax hikes to help pay for street improvements.
In 2008, the city and council "had a general idea that they brought out," Bynum said, adding "what was initially presented to the citizens in 2008 at those town hall meetings was not what was eventually" adopted by the city.
The city is also soliciting suggestions for projects online at cityoftulsa.org/Vision2 or through email at Vision2@cityoftulsa.org. Anyone interested in voicing a project idea may also call the city's customer care center at 918-596-2100.
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