POSTED ON MAY 2, 2012:
Where Is He Now?
Mayor's former chief of staff moves onto the fast track with new project
What has Terry Simonson been up to lately? The charismatic, polarizing figure in Tulsa politics has been out of the public eye since last September. He resigned as Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr.'s chief of staff under a cloud of scandal, when the Tulsa World unearthed emails that showed Simonson was pulling strings with the fire captain to squeeze his son, Ryon Simonson, into the firefighter academy.
Last week, Simonson stopped by with brightly colored maps, a briefcase and a plan. Or rather, an outline of a plan. In December, the Tulsa Airport Improvement Trust (TAIT) contracted Simonson as a momentum-gatherer for a hopeful idea.
This idea's been punted around municipal meeting rooms for more than a decade. Simply put, the plan is to create a transportation meeting ground for the Tulsa region, connecting the Port of Catoosa, railroad lines, highways and Tulsa International Airport into one easy-to-access area. Known as an intermodal facility, these meeting grounds can be found across the nation in cities from Oakland, Calif., to Houston to Memphis to Birmingham, Ala.
Simonson said the idea for a Green Country intermodal facility "has been written and talked about for years, but there's been no momentum or concentrated effort to see what it would take to develop a project like this. So TAIT asked him to take on the project.
For the past four months, Simonson has thrown his usual intense focus into finding a doable plan for knitting together Tulsa's modes of transport. He said he's been "pulling together all the stakeholders, all the research and all the reports that had been done and finally begin to move forward.
"So here we are now," he said.
Now more than ever the airport wants and needs to invest in its economic future. Tulsa is known as an aerospace hub, but the airline industry has been deeply troubled since 9/11 struck. American Airlines is only the most recent casualty of this trend.
With AA now in bankruptcy court, the very real threat of lay-offs looms large in the northeast pocket of town.
"The airport began to examine how we can tie together the close proximity of the Port of Catoosa, the airport, the major highways in the area and the major railroads," Simonson said. "That's the essence of an intermodal concept, bringing together different modes of transportation that are all part of a supply chain of moving commodities."
For the past 12 years, Smith said she's worked for the airport there's always been talk and rumor of the possibility of an intermodal facility. The idea may be ripe for the picking now.
As for Simonson's involvement, Smith said, "We wrote a contract with Terry to do some research on what to do to get this project seriously on track. From there, we hired a consultant to do a study for us."
Simonson said he went to work for TAIT as a project coordinator in December.
The intermodal facility would be located on approximately 1,340 acres "bounded on the north by 66 St. N., on the east by Highway 169, on the south by 46 St. N., and on the west by Mingo Ave.," Simonson wrote.
This unused area is about seven miles west of the Port of Catoosa and two miles north of the Tulsa International Airport. A portion of the SKOL rail line runs through the property. Though it's not particularly good-looking or high-dollar acreage, it's uniquely positioned to unite Tulsa's modes of transportation.
The plan for an intermodal facility was mention in PlaniTulsa, which was adopted by the Tulsa City Council in 2010; it was part of the Oklahoma Department of Transportation master plan in 2005; and it was included in INCOG's (Indian Nation Council of Governments) regional transportation plan in 2011.
Right now, "The airport is working to develop 800 acres" in that same area, Smith said. "An asset like an intermodal facility that close to the airport that would connect airway infrastructure along with highways and railroads would do nothing but help us attract future tenants at the airport."
The facility would benefit TAIT's ultimate goal -- boosting their non-airline revenue. "An airport is supported by several buckets of money," Smith said. Those bigger buckets include: landing fees, parking fees, rental car facility and rental cars, food/beverage/retail, and rent-paying tenants.
Developing the additional 800 acres of airport property could "give us the opportunity to add to the [non-airline revenue] bucket," Smith said.
Boost non-airline revenue, and the airport can keep landing fees lower, and attract more and better business. An airport, intermodal kind of synergy.
Mary Smith, the vice president of TAIT, said the conversation about an intermodal facility "has been going on for at least 12 years," she said. The topic "comes and goes and doesn't quite stick because we don't assign any one person to that job."
Getting the ball rolling is Simonson's assignment. In the past four months, Simonson has met with people all over Oklahoma, researched possible strategies and helped bring in Grubb Ellis, a national, and then presented his findings to TAIT.
What did he learn from all these meetings from Kansas to Oklahoma City to Houston? "People have different understandings of what intermodal means, different definitions for different terms," Simonson said. "People knew some pieces about the airport but not all the pieces."
And they needed a national consultant who could figure out supply chain management and logistics planning. Enter the project leaders from Grubb Ellis. Tim Feemster is the senior vice president of global logistics and Noah Shlaes is the company's director of strategic planning for the Chicago and Dallas markets.
"They have vast experience," Simonson said.
Two weeks ago, about 40 city leaders, including Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr., gathered in one meeting room for five hours to talk to and get their questions answered by Simonson and the project leaders from Grubb Ellis.
"It was an amazing group of people in the room," Smith said. "All of the right people were there, and it was a huge collaborative effort."
She said there was interest from public investors (the city of Tulsa), private investors (Watco Cos.), and everyone in between. The Airport Authority and Port Authority, INCOG and the Tulsa Metro Chamber all pitched in to bring the Grubb Ellis team to Tulsa for two days in April.
"They came in to conduct a workshop, and 40 to 45 federal, state, county, and local officials attended," Simonson said. "They were able to learn and listen and ask questions of Mr. Feemster about where we can go next with this concept and this project.
"Everyone was extremely optimistic," he said. "Some momentum had gotten started. It was very open. Anyone who wanted to ask questions could."
The mayor attended the meeting, and also recently toured an intermodal facility in Memphis.
"Memphis is a city more along the lines in size and scope of Tulsa and what they've built there is phenomenal," Bartlett said. "What Memphis has created is the essence of what my hope is for Tulsa.
"We can easily string together the various modes of transportation that we enjoy from interstates, rail lines, air transportation and our Port at Catoosa, to a single clearing yard that will receive and channel goods and material from the mid-continent to the world," he said.
"In my view this is the single most significant jobs builder we've seen in a generation. It is clear from our trip that we're dead on in our quest to make Tulsa the next intermodal system in our region," Bartlett said.
So what's the first move? First, the airport and city of Tulsa need to reach a deal to swap land. "Once we have the land in place that will fill out the puzzle out there that we're looking at," Smith said.
For now, it's a waiting game: Waiting for the land swap to happen. Waiting for a full written report from the Grubb Ellis team. And each step will take time. "I don't see us having a full-blown intermodal facility in the next two years," Smith said. "We'll get the land swap done and then move past that. We'll continue conversations with everyone who was at that table (at the meeting in April)."
Smith reiterated the long view of this idea. "This is a long-term investment," she said. "It's an investment in the future of the region. 'Tomorrow we're going to add thousands of jobs,' it's not that.
"It's a solid, long-term economic development project. The advantage (we have in Tulsa) is that a lot of the transportation hubs in the U.S. are already at capacity restraints. We can fill that void," Smith said.
The first concrete move may be relocating the rail yard; you know the one, with the 70-year-old trains in that railcar graveyard just west of downtown Tulsa. Those trains could be moved to a less visible part of airport land, opening up that downtown land for fresh, new development.
The team leaders from Grubb Ellis were "very supportive of our notion of relocating the railroad marshalling yard from downtown (east of OSU-Tulsa) out to a piece of property bordered roughly" near the airport, Simonson said. "It was their view that regardless of what we ultimately develop, this is absolutely the right thing" to do.
Watco Cos., the group that owns the shortline railroad that cuts through the airport's acreage, also supports this plan for "relocating from downtown Tulsa out to the property east of Tulsa, which connects to another railroad track" owned by Watco, Simonson said.
The idea is "appealing to people who support downtown development," he said.
After a whirlwind four months, Simonson's temporary contract has been fulfilled, Smith said. And TAIT isn't sure whether he'll get a new contract or not. Like we said, he's a polarizing figure. Someone we love to hate.
But Simonson is also passionate and engaged; he gets things done, even if you disagree with him.
"We have not written a long-term contract with Terry," Smith said. "He had a $36,000 contract and he's delivered what he's needed to deliver but we have not extended that contract. We're not sure what the plans are, except to discuss the next steps."
As for Simonson, he's as passionate as ever. "You can't look at anything in any room you're sitting in and not know that everything came here by some mode of transportation," he said, looking around. "Carpet, furniture, TVs, gasoline, tables -- effective transport of commodities has always been important but even more important when issues like fuel cost, environmental concerns, and clean air come up.
"This is a good economic initiative that wasn't kept a secret, it was just a hidden gem that was overlooked," he said.
Simonson also emphasized the long view of this plan. "We bought land for an airport before we had an airport," he said. "We bought land for expressways before we ever had expressways ... Tulsa visionaries always see what there's not yet to see."
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