The jobs might be coming.
"We're a finalist right now on potentially three pretty significant projects," said Mike Neal, the president and chief executive officer of the Tulsa Regional Chamber.
Naturally upbeat and charming, Neal isn't one to dwell on the negative -- and when he refers to new projects, it would seem to foreshadow good economic news: "projects" are chamber-speak for either new companies relocating to the area or local businesses expanding.
But in the same breath, Neal spoke concernedly about a potential obstacle. Site selection consultants tell the chamber the deals "require some local job creation fund investment," Neal said.
A "job creation fund" would have been established by Vision2, the tax extension plan rejected by voters in November.
"I personally despise incentives, but in the world we live in now, in the economic development space, if you're going to play the game you've got to have some ability to play in that space," Neal said.
Sports metaphors come naturally to Neal, a former college baseball player -- he likened not having such a fund to trying to get a hit at home plate without a bat. But while Vision2 was a swing and a miss, the chamber's worked hard to become an economic player.
Asked about 2012 highlights, for example, Neal noted the chamber's accreditation by the International Economic Development Corporation. Combined with a five-star designation from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the two distinctions make for an organization uniquely qualified to pursue economic goals.
Another change involved a new name, with the chamber no longer a "metro" chamber but instead regional.
"In reality, we are not at all different, but the name simply portrays what we've been doing in our strategic plan for the last six years," Neal said, adding, "everything in that strategic plan is regional."
So, too, has become one key element of the chamber's economic development focus: a program known as Tulsa's Future.
First begun in 2005, it's always had the goal of recruiting new companies to the area and helping retain existing businesses, all in the name of creating jobs. Funding for it has come from a variety of sources. In the first few years of the program, "it was 92 [percent] private sector, 8 percent public sector," Neal said, with the City of Tulsa being the primary public investor.
However, a consultant helped the chamber realize the need to move beyond a "metro" approach, Neal said. The Atlanta-based Market Street Service influenced development of Tulsa's Future II. The revised effort, begun in 2009, involves greater funding from the public sector.
Now, the mix is more like an 80-20 split. Private sector contributions still making up most of the funding but the public sector dollars have grown, Neal said. "I think it's 28 public sector investors -- and those range from cities, counties, tribal governments, economic development organizations, chambers throughout the region -- and then we have 110 or so, 120 businesses throughout the region," he said.
Along with recruiting efforts, Tulsa's Future II "manages all of the marketing efforts and workforce development efforts and the advocacy," Neal said. Asked about it serving as the proposed fund idea in Vision2, Neal said that's not the program's purpose.
"It doesn't have a deal-closing fund. It doesn't have the resources. It's not blessed with the abundance of resources to direct towards a job-closing fund," Neal said. While Vision2 proposed creating a fund of about $50 million, Tulsa's Future II raised $15.75 million in pledge contributions in 2011, money meant to be used over a five-year period.
Those efforts contributed to about 3,500 new jobs coming to Tulsa in 2012, Neal said. Can Tulsa's Future possibly grow to include a "job-closing fund?"
"Probably not," Neal said. "It's probably not the right vehicle." He said the idea for a job-creation fund came out of the strategic planning done as part of the program. However, when asked, he said those contributing to Tulsa's Future II may have a role in future endeavors. "I think that group can be involved in the strategic creation of some type of job creation fund or job-creation program," Neal said.
He acknowledged the criticism of Vision2, a push to renew a sales tax that wasn't set to expire until four years from now, in the beginning of 2017.
"People said it was rushed. It was. But we really had no choice. The whole thing was driven from an aerospace-driven job retention perspective," Neal said.
The big domino falling, of course, was the bankruptcy of American Airlines in late 2011.
"They said, as a result of this bankruptcy, 'We have no choice but to close one of our two maintenance facilities. Either we're going to close Tulsa, or we're going to close the Alliance base in Dallas-Fort Worth.' Being a Southern boy from Louisiana, my response was real simple: what's it going to take for you to keep Tulsa open and close Alliance?" Neal recalled.
The base in Fort Worth is closing. Negotiations with American involved the company describing roughly $300 million in needed repairs to worksite facilities, Neal said. "If you guys can make those things happen and guarantee us you can get those things to occur within a reasonable period of time, five or six years ... if you can do that, we'll commit to staying in Tulsa," was the company's message to Tulsa leaders, Neal said.
With the failure of Vision2, "American Airlines is in the process of pinpointing for the city and for us precisely what are the things that they absolutely have to have in 2013," Neal said.
As the chamber adjusts to a move to Williams Tower I downtown (they previously were in Williams Tower II), Neal said he's "pretty bullish that it's going to be a positive year."
"I would say we've got some great opportunities. However, we still have a pending crisis in relationship to the aerospace industry with all the uncertainties ... we've still got a potential crisis brewing there," Neal said. "We've got to be very strategic, and we've got to be very aggressive in trying to maintain every single job we possibly can in this community as well as grow and recruit every single job that we possibly can to this region."
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