POSTED ON JULY 4, 2012:
Funding Fly World
Thinking about the proposed airport "tax"
As readers may know, leading elements of the Tulsa business community, the City Council, the Mayor's office and a variety of other direct stakeholders are in the midst of putting together an airport/aerospace improvement package.
This is the first in a two-part look on what some are calling the aero-space or airport tax. I've tried to cover some of these topics in previous pieces in Cityscape. These two new pieces are my best attempt to get at the core of what's being proposed and maybe some of what should be proposed. While time is running out for putting anything on a November ballot for voter approval, it seems clear that we need something ambitious and imaginative to backstop Green Country's grand posse of aerospace workers, the bevy of strong local aerospace companies and the small army of contractors and vendors who now populate T-Town.
This is not only an issue of economics (aerospace is one of the hottest arenas in the American economy) but it is an issue of morality and equality as well. And it is not about Tulsa's increasingly dysfunctional nexus to America Airlines -- a checkered connection that could come to a practical end at anytime, given AA's largely self induced bankruptcy tumult.
The "airport package" would go before the voters, as things now stand, in November as a fractional penny tax proposition. Basically, the notions under discussion entail extending the existing Vision 2025 program -- which funded a bevy of area university physical improvement efforts, the fab BOK arena, the Morton Health Care facility and a host of other projects. The aerospace project advocates are arguing for bringing the Vision 2025 program's 2016 expiration date forward and renewing this county wide taxpayer driven improvement effort with a passel of new projects, including some kind of aerospace piece.
Some Meta Issues
As UTW readers know, the Tulsa Metropolitan Chamber's leadership proposed earlier this month a more than $200 million package to rebuild the city-owned hanger facilities at the airport, put in place an extensive engine testing facility which could be used by variety of commercial players, and a bunch of maintenance and improvement problems that bedevil a handful of airport domiciled firms. Part of the controversy: It's not evident who the primary beneficiaries would be -- the private firms/project nexus in the improvement package is not clear from the representations to date.
But a much bigger issue is the connection between the airport improvement package's actual prospects for attracting additional capital for aerospace, for reanimating Tulsa aerospace growth path, and truly sparking the trajectory of existing and new commercial players. The more than $200 million figure, earlier in play, is relatively large compared to other needs that might be addressed via a new Vision 2025 effort: a compromise, still jelling, entails reducing the size of the "fly world package" and making it a part of a larger proposition. This would allow T-Town to invest in aerospace futures while still meeting a bevy of other capital/quality-of-life projects that have been addressed in the past, using Vision 2025 funds.
Why not imagine something on the order of $100 million to attend to Tulsa's hangar improvement efforts, very much needed to accommodate contemporary large body commercial aircraft repair work -- but using the bulk of these funds for a broader, more imaginative aerospace development effort? What are some of the strategic developments in aerospace that Green Country might exploit with a big/more agile initiative:
*Huge changes in lighter-than-air/dirigible space: a variety of domestic and international firms are investing significant sums in new lighter-than-air vehicles -- trans-oceanic tourism is at the top of one new market and there are a host of amazing heavy industrial/military uses as well.
*OSU has a fabulous automated aerial vehicle graduate program and millions of federal funds for pre-commercial development programs with private firms in this arena. Commercial uses/emerging markets for unmanned aerial vehicles are the hottest "spaces" in all of aviation at the moment and are likely to generate, according to a recent industry survey piece from London's Economist magazine, hundreds of thousands of additional jobs -- which will manifest in places that have top notch aerospace workers, researchers and facilities: and at the moment, there are no communities with a strangle hold on these new prospects.
*Lastly are the enormous, wildly transformative economic and technological developments that are in play in commercial space tourism, asteroid mining, manufacturing and the earth science/environmental arena. Elon Musk of SpaceX, Richard Branson and Burt Rutan of Virgin Galactic are the most visible players in a dynamic that could permanently alter planetary economics and create many millions of new jobs.
Bellying Up To The Bar
While it may be too late, it would be really cool to seriously consider getting voter approval to fund a "Next Gen Fly World for Tulsa" competition along the lines of the 1927 Lindbergh/New York to Paris contest -- a "big bang" effort that spawned commercial aviation as we know it today.
I outlined this gambit a little in an earlier piece -- so I guess I'm repeating myself -- but this is a path we should at least look at:
Charles Lindbergh's 1927 voyage across the Atlantic was spawned by a celebrated contest -- a trans-planetary competition staged by a small group of businessmen. Lindbergh and his team entered this contest -- one that sought to fly a human to or from New York City to Paris. By offering a relatively modest sum ($25,000 or nearly $340,000 in 2012 money) the "Lindbergh" gambit surely sped up and profoundly altered the path of commercial aviation and the fate of towns like Tulsa.
Tulsa could do an audacious aerospace "futures" competition. We could ask local firms, national scope ventures, universities and combinations of all these players, to "bid" on how they would use a big (say on the order of something like a $90 million fund) to stand up a leapfrog aerospace future project. And this should play out not as a toothless consulting effort but by way of actually requiring potential winners to stipulate new Green Country company relocations, large on site production and aviation technology projects, re-positioned headquarter operations, T-Town aircraft assembly facilities, sizable R&D efforts, space development works etc. And we could require that fully responsive "bidders" pledge to produce new Tulsa jobs, sizable additional private dollars for aerospace and other tangible items -- and use take back provisions to deal with winners who betrayed us.
There is a real prospect that we would get dozens of proposals -- local, local-national, some from commercial carriers, items from OSU/TU/OU, projects from the new space outfits, and maybe offerings from adventurous local union/company combines. Some of the propositions would surely be sustainable, executable strategies that might spin up Tulsa's competitive kinetics, foster deep job gains and work as a singular calling card for our region.
Send all comments and feedback regarding Cityscape to
URL for this story: http://www.urbantulsa.comhttp://www.urbantulsa.com/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A50563