There is one sure way to know that fall has arrived in Tulsa: The Tulsa State Fair has started. For 11 days one of the most anticipated events in Oklahoma puts on display what takes a year of planning and execution. It's that annual opportunity for people from across the state and across the nation to proudly show what we can make, sell, grow, raise, and perform.
Though the fair may be the most visible and anticipated event at Expo Square, it is by far not the only reason that Expo Square was awarded the Best of Shows acclaim by the International Association of Fairs and Expositions, an association of 1300 fairs and expositions from around the globe.
Prime Time. Tulsa Sate Fair's Midway by night.
Expo Square provides that unique combination of economic development and quality of life results that area leaders believe is what makes a community progress forward.
In the course of one year, over 400 events spin off over $150 million dollars of community and economic development benefits. The fair alone employs over 1000 people, costs $7 million to produce and yet for the past three years has come out financially ahead.
Over the past years, Tulsa County residents have wisely invested in the Expo Square grounds. With support of the past Four to Fix and Vision 2025 initiatives, over $140 million has been spent to convert the "old fairgrounds" into a world class facility. Not a person who steps foot on the grounds isn't impressed by the transformation.
What makes Expo Square so successful? There are five reasons that could serve as lessons for other community initiatives:
--Leadership -- The public private leaders on the Tulsa County Public Facilities Authority bring the right mix of public and private experience, knowledge, and perspective. They balance each other out, they recognize there isn't a right or wrong political agenda involved, and they do their homework with transparency and accountability in mind. They truly understand and behave like "trustees of the public trust."
--Management -- The management and staff understand the mission of Expo Square, its public purpose, and to stay ahead of the challenges which all events driven facilities face today. They recognized that it's not how many employees you have but whether you have the right number who constantly question that the right things are being done right. They plan, develop, and execute with flawless timing while staying flexible and successful in dealing with unexpected challenges, a changing economy, and hundreds of private partners and users.
--Visionary Planning -- Planners see the future before it's here. They learn from the past and seek out the best examples of success and then replicate it, all the while listening to what the community wants and what the users need. They are never content that what we have is the best we will ever have. They believe that tomorrow can always be better than yesterday.
--Responsive Investment -- The trustees stay flexible to changing times, understanding how to protect public investments in public assets and to wisely discern how to change and when to change the direction of public investment. Not just staying ahead of the curve but setting the bar.
--Community Partners -- The trustees and staff understand how to balance its place in the region while fitting into a neighborhood, being sensitive to neighborhood concerns by asking how to preserve neighborhood quality of life while leading one of the largest and most diverse economic development operations in Tulsa County.
Because Expo Square tries to operate free of intrusive government regulations and politics, it's time to turn back the clock and for the city council to de annex the fairgrounds. Some will remember that in an ill-fated and short-sighted attempt to shore up its own failing financial picture, the city believed in 2009 that if it imposed the city's sales tax on sales at the fairgrounds, and charge the fairgrounds city utility rates, it would be a tremendous financial windfall. It was never going to be, and it hasn't proven to be. Instead, Expo now spends over $148,000 on utility charges it didn't have to pay, has to deal with the inspection, permitting, and other city government red tape regulations.
The state and local economies have improved enough that the city council should do the right thing by giving Expo Square back to the TCPFA. By so doing, they will also be giving some tax relief to those who want to shop on the Expo grounds especially during the Tulsa State Fair. It would be akin to the sales tax holiday we have every year, only this would last 10 days instead of one weekend. Citizens would at least have an opportunity to support businesses and reduce the sales tax they spend when doing so.
Expo Square has a lot of new plans. With the empty Drillers Stadium and the soon to be empty City County Health Department building, there are more opportunities for great development and attractions. With Expo Square clearly having a record of service and performance worthy of being Best of Shows, the public should be very proud.
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