POSTED ON MAY 27, 2009:
The rebirth of downtown and the concept of walkable communities requires imagination and citizen participation
Tulsa Police Chief Ronald Palmer has proposed imposing a security fee of 75 cents to a dollar per ticket to cover the overtime costs for extra police officers patrolling downtown during major BOK Center events. It's the least that the BOK Center can do to offset its impact on the city budget.
It's argued that such a fee would upset the promoters who book shows at the arena, putting Tulsa at a competitive disadvantage. If someone is willing to buy that ticket for a dollar more than previously, that's a dollar that could have gone to the promoter instead of the city. The argument goes that the BOK Center is generating sales tax revenue, and we shouldn't balance the city budget on the backs of these promoters.
In reality, the voters chose to subsidize those promoters to the tune of $178 million, and it will take at least a century for the arena to generate the same amount of local tax dollars that we put into it.
Here's the math: The BOK Center has remitted more than $1.2 million in city and county sales tax revenues in the eight months since it opened. It's impossible to know exactly how much of that revenue came from Tulsans reallocating their disposable income from other entertainment and dining options, although it's reasonable to think that the vast majority of the revenue is coming from local residents.
In the six months reported by the Oklahoma Tax Commission since the arena held its first paid event last September, sales tax receipts in Tulsa County increased by 4.7 percent over the year before. But statewide, sales tax receipts for the same period increased by 5.5% over the year before, suggesting that the BOK Center didn't provide an added boost to Tulsa over and above the improvement to the general state economy.
But for the sake of argument, let's assume that all of the sales tax paid by the BOK Center represents new money. At that rate it would only take about 100 years for local taxpayers to recoup in city and county tax revenues the $178 million (not including interest on the bonds) that we put into the facility.
Former Councilor Chris Medlock, in his May 19 medblogged.com podcast, took debt service into account and calculated 122 years before the arena will generate as much local sales tax as was spent to build it.
My calculation and Medlock's figures both optimistically assume that the BOK Center will continue to bring in big acts and draw the same big crowds as it has during what Bolton has called a "honeymoon period," although Bolton himself has warned Tulsans not to expect that to happen.
No one can know for sure whether the BOK Center has increased local tax receipts over what they would otherwise have been. What we can say for sure is that popular music venues like Cain's Ballroom, the Marquee, and the Mercury Lounge haven't been subsidized by taxpayers to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. The owners of those venues paid to rent or buy and to renovate their facilities. Those costs are passed on in the price of each ticket.
BOK Center management and show promoters should be overflowing with gratitude to the taxpayers of Tulsa County for giving them, at no cost to them, a brand new, state-of-the-art venue where they can put on their shows and make big profits. They shouldn't try to dump even more of their operating cost onto city taxpayers.
Praise the Lord
Anytime I hear about a downtown church expanding, I cringe. For many years, that has meant that another historic commercial building will fall to make way for more parking.
It's wonderful that our downtown churches, with their historic and beautiful buildings, have survived and continue to thrive, drawing congregants from all over the metropolitan area, but their hunger for surface parking makes them a mixed blessing.
First Presbyterian Church's approach to expansion, however, deserves praise and warrants emulation.
Rather than tear down the old Masonic Temple across Boston Ave., Tulsa's oldest congregation renovated it for use as church classroom and event space and offices for non-profit organizations. Now called the Bernsen Community Life Center, it serves not only the church but the whole community. Barthelmes Conservatory, for example, has its office there and holds its public concerts in the center's various performance spaces.
In the same spirit, First Pres is about to eliminate some surface parking and put something beautiful in its place. A new worship center and reception hall, welcome center, and educational building will fill up the half-block west of Cincinnati Ave between 7th and 8th Streets. The new additions will be in the same Gothic Revival style as the 1925 sanctuary. The buildings will form a U around a courtyard, reminiscent of a cathedral cloister.
The church has also acquired the Power House gym at 8th and Detroit, which served many years as Chick Norton (later Jim Norton) Buick -- one of the few downtown auto dealership buildings still standing. Power House is the new home for the church's youth ministries, and it is already under renovation.
The congregation has pledged more than $14 million toward a goal of $18 million, to be matched dollar-for-dollar by Charlie Stephenson, a co-founder of Vintage Petroleum, and his wife Peggy.
There was something else on the drawings that I found especially encouraging: A new parking garage on the southeast corner of 7th and Main, directly to the west of the Bernsen Center, taking the place of an existing surface lot. It's not clear whether this is part of the current fundraising drive or something for the future.
A parking garage would set a great example for other downtown churches, by accommodating more cars in a smaller area. It would be even more exciting if the garage included street-fronting retail spaces, which would help rebuild a pedestrian-friendly connection between the downtown office core and TCC and the south downtown churches.
Plan It, Tulsa!
I'm told that, after the first week of the PLANiTULSA survey, ranking four scenarios for future growth, only about 600 had been collected or submitted online at planitulsa.org. Planners are hoping for 20 to 30 times that number by the June 18 deadline.
Please take time to submit a survey: The more Tulsans participate, the harder it will be for city officials to ignore the results.
Here are three observations about PLANiTULSA:
1. PLANiTULSA is finally delivering what Bill LaFortune promised with his July 2002 "vision summit." 1,100 Tulsans gathered to express their dreams for the city's future, but instead of the process leading to a comprehensive strategy and plan for Tulsa's future development, the result was a grab-bag of disconnected projects scattered around the county.
With the PLANiTULSA process, Tulsans are finally putting together a vision of the sort defined by futurist Glenn Heimstra at the 2002 summit: "A compelling description of your preferred future."
2. The results of the PLANiTULSA citywide workshops, represented by Scenario B, and to a lesser extent by C and D, vindicate the "Gang of Four"--Councilors Jack Henderson, Jim Mautino, Chris Medlock, and Roscoe Turner, who served together from 2004 to 2006--as genuine advocates for the City of Tulsa's growth.
The four took a lot of flak from the development industry, which pushed the unsuccessful 2005 attempt to recall Mautino and Medlock. They were tarred as opponents of growth, but the quartet's real offense was working to focus Tulsa's resources on encouraging new, high quality, compatible growth within Tulsa city limits rather than fueling suburban expansion at Tulsa's expense.
Those efforts began in 2003, when Medlock and then-Councilor Joe Williams proposed a future growth task force to address the stagnation of the city's sales tax base as new retail followed residents to the suburbs.
The task force was put on the back burner by Mayor Bill LaFortune, but in 2004, the coalition won funding for a study potential big-box retail sites in Tulsa. The Buxton study identified US 75 at 71st St a prime location to capture retail dollars from customers in upscale suburban subdivisions. Medlock won approval of a Tax Increment Finance district for the area, which made possible the development of the Tulsa Hills shopping district.
The four, along with Sam Roop (for a time), held up the reappointment of two members of the Tulsa Metropolitan Utility Authority, the city's water board, over concerns that the TMUA's long-term water deals with the suburbs benefited suburban growth to the City of Tulsa's detriment.
This same coalition began pushing for a new comprehensive plan in 2005 and included funding for the process we now call PLANiTULSA in the 2006 Third Penny package.
Assuming survey responses reflect the same preferences on display at last fall's workshops, it will confirm that Tulsans share the desire that motivated these often-vilified councilors: to see new development in the City of Tulsa that respects existing neighborhood character, brings more people into the city, stimulates new retail development, and generates more tax revenue to fund basic city services.
3. In my very first UTW column, back in September 2005, I wrote of the importance of walkable neighborhoods for Tulsans who don't have the option of driving a car.
"Most of Tulsa is designed for the private automobile, but there ought to be at least a part of our city where those who can't drive, those who'd rather not drive, and those who'd like to get by with just one car can still lead an independent existence. At least one section of our city ought to be truly urban."
PLANiTULSA scenarios B and D would get us closer to making that goal a reality.
As you fill out your PLANiTULSA survey, by all means think about which scenario comes closest to the kind of city that would best serve your needs. But take a moment to consider which of the four scenarios would best serve those who by reason of age, infirmity, or poverty are unable to drive.
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