POSTED ON JUNE 30, 2010:
A Bigger Small Business
The city of Tulsa has done well to make cuts, but it needs to generate revenue, too
My primary business is the restaurant business. I spend a good part of my day dealing with the work of preparing food and serving it to people. Although I don't make as many pizzas these days as I once did, I still spend a good amount of energy trying to figure out how to creatively better our business and its financial situation. It's what small business owners do. We work hard to grow and improve our businesses, so we can make more money.
It doesn't sound complicated, right? Offer something that the public needs and wants, and then let them know that you've got it and then give it to them in a way that they like.
It's essentially what every business in the world is doing, and when times get tough for us, there are two major things we can do to address a difficult financial situation.
We can sit down in our offices, crunch numbers, call vendors, and figure out ways to cut costs. Not a bad idea. Cutting costs definitely has its place as long as you're not compromising your product or your service.
The other part of the process is to evaluate our operation, improve where we can and promote our product better. You see, driving up sales and getting more customers fixes a money problem much faster than saving a few bucks on pepperoni.
The best way, after all, to deal with a money problem is to make more of it.
Watching how our city leaders have historically dealt with Tulsa's budget problems, I'm often left scratching my head. They seem to spend lots of time figuring out ways to save money (often with seemingly little regard to the damage those cuts do to the standard of service they provide), but little to no time working to generate new revenue. Maybe I shouldn't compare running a city to running a restaurant, but I can't help it.
The city is not too different from a small business. In Tulsa, it's even more like a business than in other cities as our primary funding source for the city is sales tax revenue. It's quite simple. The more money people spend in Tulsa, the more money our local government gets. The more money they get, the better equipped they are to provide services.
During last year's mayoral race, one of the questions I heard asked repeatedly was one about changing our city's revenue source to be more diverse. The candidates tended to reply in favor of diversifying our revenue base. I get it. Property tax and other taxes are more predictable. They're less affected by large swings in the economy. A diverse tax base allows government to better budget for the future.
What I think proponents of that change (which is not going to happen any time soon as it will have to come from the state), fail to embrace is the opportunity that our current funding source creates. The ceiling is much higher with sales tax than with property tax.
What I mean is, if lots of people are spending lots of money in Tulsa, we'll have more money than we have things to spend it on. While we're currently subject to large "down swings," that has to also mean that we're capable of large revenue gains during the "up swings."
If our leaders were running the city more like a business, they'd see the opportunity. Understand, they'd still have to be smart and learn to set some money aside during the prosperous times to cover costs in the slow times, but surely they can handle that. Yeah?
If people from around the metro area were spending more money in Tulsa and less online and in other cities, we'd have significantly more sales tax revenue with which to operate. These tough times should be forcing us to be creative. Instead, our leadership is working diligently to figure out how to cut costs. That's cool. It's necessary. It's a part of dealing with tough times. The failure is in failing to do the second part. Where is the campaign to promote shopping locally?
I'll tell you where it is. It exists.
Did you know it exists? It's called Shop Tulsa. Right now, our city council is running a program designed to educate Tulsans about the benefits of shopping locally. As you can imagine, they don't have much budget for it and resources are limited, but the idea is there and it's a good one.
Councilors Barnes (District 4) and Christiansen (District 8) came together to help create Shop Tulsa. I love it. I love that in the midst of the bickering and negativity we've read about at city hall lately, there's a glimmer of hope.
Shop Tulsa, at the very least, has the right intentions. Let's be positive. Let's promote what Tulsa has to offer that's special and unique, its local businesses. Let's give Tulsans a simple, memorable reminder of what they can do to help solve this problem.
When you patronize a local restaurant, more of your dollar stays in Tulsa. At Joe Momma's, for example, we don't send any money off to our corporate office in Scottsdale. Our profits go to Tulsans who then turn around and spend their money in Tulsa, thus perpetuating the cycle of local sales tax revenue and a stronger local economy.
If those running the city throughout the past several years would have spent the same energy promoting local spending and attracting out-of-town visitors as they do on the other aspects of running the city, I'm confident that we wouldn't be in our current situation. It starts with revenue.
I maintain that many Tulsans just haven't thought about the importance of shopping locally. How many Tulsans drive across the river to Jenks to spend money? How many are shopping in Bixby or Broken Arrow? How many Tulsans haven't eaten in a local restaurant in months, but frequent the 71st Street chains on a weekly basis? We can change the culture of our city. We can be a city that prefers local business.
We can be a city that attracts visitors from other cities. We can be a city that attracts conventions. The positive effects of having a large and successful base of locally owned businesses are significant. See Austin, Portland or Denver. The cities that we're constantly looking at as the ones that set the standard for a successful and thriving 21st Century American city all have one thing in common. Their citizens are proud of their hometown and its unique local businesses.
Joe Momma's is two blocks from city hall and I swear, I can feel the stress oozing out of that building. Few things are more stressful than a bad economy. I've been in the restaurant business for years, and things weren't always as good as they are these days. I know what it's like to sit in the office looking at the numbers wondering how to make ends meet. I can't help but think that the lessons I've learned in my business apply to our city's troubles, just on a much different scale.
We've (Tulsa) got to get out there and promote the business. We've got to attract visitors and increase spending locally. We can solve this problem with creativity and enthusiasm better than we can with drastic measure cost cutting and political bickering.
My encouragement to you all is very simple: Follow the lead of our city council in this instance. I won't ask you to make major changes to the way you live your life. Go out to eat, just do it in town with a local restaurant. Shop like crazy, just try a local boutique. The best thing you can do to help build a better future for our city is easy. Shop Tulsa.
For more information about the Shop Tulsa program visit shoptulsa.org or call the city council office at 596-1990.
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