POSTED ON AUGUST 24, 2011:
Ideas, Imagination, Initiative Are What's Needed
Calling all entrepreneurs, get off your butts
The president is expected to deliver a critical address on the nation's economy after Labor Day. Speculation abounds about what he will propose: buzz suggests he will propose seed funding for an infrastructure/capital projects bank. Seed capital of $10-20 billion would allow private and foreign investors to make additional placements to "blow" the fund up to a quarter to a half-trillion dollars.
The Ibank, as some call it, would be a low interest source for doing employment heavy construction, capital improvements, energy/environmental improvements and critical transportation projects. The American Society of Civil Engineers recently estimated that we need this sort of stuff to the tune of $2 trillion.
There are many "on the shelf" projects of this kind in Tulsa. Some, like deepening the primary channel at the Port of Catoosa, to accommodate bigger ships and larger shipping volumes have been around for a while. Others, like scooping up Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett's multimodal transportation project, again at the Port, would allow us to fully exploit trans-shipment, agile logistics and other capabilities that might improve our economic situation. But there are a host of other initiatives, call them leapfrog projects, that would make Green Country's workforce more agile, address our dreadful health status problems, or give us the capacity to attack long-standing deficits in Tulsa's competitive toolkit.
I've sketched out a small set. It's an arbitrary listing...a catalyst for what we should send up, in the event that the Ibank gets through the political thicket in Washington. I hope UTW readers will put on their thinking caps.
The Eberle Project--Rolling Back Bad Metabolics
Tulsa has terrible healthcare metrics. We have tremendous cardiovascular, obesity, diabetes and nutritional deficits. These problems hobble the productivity of our workforce, put outsized demands on employers and make sizable calls on public dollars that might otherwise go for public education, economic development and state-of-the-art infrastructure.
Stephan Eberle was a professional chef and a passionate Tulsa food policy advocate who died recently after a long illness. His energy and creative passion lead to the establishment of Tulsa's Food Coalition, a university, business, public sector forum for looking at and orchestrating T-town efforts to get a handle on this array of problems.
We could secure funding from Ibank to augment, design and advance a robust food/nutrition agenda, a sort of urban agriculture "accelerator" lab. These efforts would amplify initiatives already underway in the metropolitan area, including projects at Langston University, a variety of initiatives being conceived by Russ Burkhart, a Tulsa health/urban ag professional, and a range of new food production, nutrition and distribution projects that may be launched shortly. Think urban fish farms, vertical ag (doing novel produce and vegetable farming in shuddered office properties in downtown Tulsa), big scale urban gardens, and a produce/fresh vegetable co-op that would help smaller grocery operators exploit the humongous purchasing scale enjoyed by big players like Wal-Mart, Costco etc. There are also some cool, maybe even sizable, employment gains that might come from an innovative, focused urban ag effort.
A Supercomputing Center
A supercomputer is an extremely high performance computation engine, or an array of thousands of regular processing devices that are ganged together as a seamless computational array. "Supers" have been used traditionally for nuclear weapons simulation, seismic exploration, aerospace prototyping and climate modeling. There are strong rumors just now that one of these monster machines might soon come to Tulsa. An "Ibank" cash infusion could allow the Tulsa folks working on this effort to expand the scope and scale of what they are already planning. Having a publicly available "Super" would give Tulsa researchers/scientists, designers, engineers, entrepreneurs and artists a wild card advantage in our region. A Super center would allow Tulsans to do otherwise impossible tasks including, for example, exploring the therapeutic potential of novel compounds, what some call computational chemistry. Finishing an animated film in a few weeks as opposed to months would grant local filmmakers/animators a competitive advantage that few small players currently enjoy. Augmenting the info security work that TU is doing, local climate modeling, and state of the art architectural design work, are other examples.
Re-Inventing Transit--A Bus Rapid Transit System
Tulsa has a very modest transit system that hobbles workers and employers. In a time of difficult fiscal circumstance and a time when workers need more options than ever, re-inventing Tulsa's bus system would dramatically improve the work force participation of tens of thousands of Tulsans.
One of the ideas that looks really good, one that is examined in Tulsa's new Fast Forward transit plan, is called bus rapid transit. It's a kind of off-grid, hyper-flexible, transit concept that employs small and big vehicles and a variety of strategies to make bus transit dramatically more responsive. The fascinating thing about bus rapid transit is that it doesn't require land acquisition, hundreds of millions of dollars in capital outlays and doesn't entail years of design, construction and environment reviews. Creating a novel bus system to replace our existing system would improve the work situation of thousands of transport limited or "zero car" Tulsans, allow employers to access a bigger, more reliable, work force and, if executed really well, reduce mobile source air pollution and improve traffic flows.
A Metro wide Sensory System
Cities that want to be at their best closely monitor their air, water and land. A cutting-edge idea would be to install a dense, metropolitan-wide sensor network that would give public decision-makers, neighborhoods and business people the capacity to see how we're doing on a variety of environmental and physical fronts. A metropolitan sensor network entails putting dozens, perhaps hundreds of small, inexpensive "sentinels" across our area to continuously sample our air, the ground, our small area microclimates, etc. at an unprecedented level of detail. A big, intelligent sensor system would give Tulsa tremendous insight into the interplay between economic activity, our transportation system, and our environmental circumstances. Putting this project on the ground would mark Tulsa as a frontier community, one that would be a magnet for new sensor, "physical computing" and next stage environmental ventures.
These projects are a sample of the kind of efforts that might benefit greatly from partial financing via a national infrastructure bank. Of course we would still need lots of T-town private capital and generous dollops of the philanthropic dollars that grace our community. But there are lots of other efforts that we could imagine. What we need are bold, middle initiatives that would put Tulsa on a more powerful employment and developmental trajectory. They could get underway with a little sparking money from Uncle Sam and it won't hurt a bit.
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