POSTED ON NOVEMBER 23, 2011:
Post Impasse Prospects
New council and mayor can turn the page
The recent city elections allow a "turning of the page" at City Hall. Mayor Dewey Bartlett and the mostly new Tulsa City Council have a rare opportunity to rethink a bunch of practices and priorities.
In the mid 90's, I was a chief technology and creative services officer in an exciting new venture: this well-funded project was a Tulsa based experimental housing systems company.
The company was created to design and produce unconventional housing of the type associated with the offerings you can see these days in Dwell magazine. Our early stage mission was to provide superior housing in rural Oklahoma by using naval architecture, modular building techniques, and other innovations to lower the cost and improve the variety of housing in rural Oklahoma.
And the rural market seemed to have considerable potential, especially since our prime competition was the mobile home industry. I was skeptical about starting in rural Oklahoma, but there was a lot of data indicating that home building in rural Oklahoma was unnecessarily expensive. Our first stage company strategy also called for, at least in our first year, avoiding having to push for zoning and land use changes that we would have had to secure in urban sittings.
What our firm didn't count on was the incredibly conservative character of rural consumers and the wholly underdeveloped state of mortgage markets in rural Oklahoma. We also didn't appreciate that prospective homebuyers in rural Oklahoma, when it came to housing and housing design in particular, were extremely conservative. What's now evident to me, and was sort of in the back of my head at the time, was that urban markets like Tulsa, Oklahoma City and Lawton might have been far more responsive to the breakout housing our company was trying to launch.
The housing company venture ended up crashing -- a failure I won't forget. I learned that incremental change usually doesn't work and the experience was fully consistent with a lot of the material I've seen of late on sparking transformative services and products.
Chance to Turn A New Page at City Hall
While City Hall is a large institution and one constrained by many long-standing practices and conventions, it's increasingly obvious that making the city more competitive economically, ratcheting up equity, transforming service delivery and doing more with tight budgets should impel a lot of new thinking.
Fashioning more efficient, more responsive services at City Hall means not only looking at the costs of services and how they are provisioned -- as Mayor Bartlett's new Management Review Office is doing -- it also means prototyping dramatically different ways of doing services and a sometimes drastic rethink of the way we've handled policing, civil engineering, trash, housing/neighborhood development, economic development, streets and citizen engagement. I've worked up some examples here -- others will surely emerge if we can get great chemistry from the new Mayor/Council relationship.
Police and fire operations consume a huge part of the City's budget. The challenge: finding breakthrough practices that can improve public safety while dramatically pushing down the explosive growth in salaries, and in the case of the fire department, hardware and related operating costs linked to these vital services.
A small set of cities across the country are exploring combining key elements of police and fire services, cross training police and fire officers, and co-locating police branches offices and fire stations. Community policing is a more intimate and responsive style of policing than classical patrol and react regimes. And we could look at the potential of civilian aerial drones for augmenting street/highway patrol and fire suppression; or explore the gunshot sensor arrays being used by Newark Mayor Cory Booker. And we could look at systemic breaks -- seriously examine using a formal citizens' oversight process to ratchet up police responsiveness and to help manage the outsized cost creep that virtually defines police and fire operations in Tulsa.
The expiration of the Vision 2025 program and the third penny sales tax are impending -- both sources are central to our large street repair/expansion efforts and to an auspicious array of high yield projects for Green Country. Now is an excellent time for the Mayor, the new council, ordinary folks and our business community to think closely about using the next round of these programs to propose some game changing, really kinetic projects to stimulate economic growth and job creation in Tulsa. Part of the road ahead means consciously changing the historic mix of projects voters have approved in earlier rounds.
The BOK arena is a spectacular, if conventional example of a Vision 2025 project: it's impact on the City's downtown economy and on our regional economic trajectory is little short of amazing. But we could look to other kinds of initiatives like augmenting the work of the Oklahoma Innovation Institute's community-supercomputing project, an effort that could be a game changer for a whole array of film/animation, engineering, design and manufacturing ventures in Tulsa. Or we could look at scaling up the work of Tulsa's Fab-lab: another front of the spear development effort that could help Tulsa "maker" firms redefine industrial production, early stage product design and a raft of other highly strategic activities.
We could augment the work of the OSU's downtown Helmerich Research Center: a next generation composites and materials research/development operation that could spark a raft of start up companies and new jobs. The top line: we need to focus on next-generation infrastructure, the kind of thing that can give Tulsa a sharper competitive edge when it comes to retaining startup firms and attracting small, high potential firms from the outside.
New Comprehensive Plan
Tulsa's new city plan is an outgrowth of an extremely intensive citizens' participation process, it has extraordinary moral standing as a consequence; it is also imaginative and would make Tulsa a much more agile, much more interesting place.
It needs to be fully staffed and fully funded. That means that we need to have a planning staff that has the eyes, ears and brains required to do meaningful and inventive planning work and it also means we need to fund regional planning initiatives and continue some of the great work already underway -- particularly transportation planning at INCOG, Green Country's regional planning agency. Next week I'll take a look at getting the new council and Mayor Bartlett to reheat the Mayor's intriguing energy strategy and poke around with re-defining engineering at City Hall.
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