POSTED ON JULY 18, 2012:
Taking It Higher
City leaders embrace larger economic development role
Not so long ago, any civic push for economic development in Tulsa was "left completely and solely to the Chamber of Commerce," recalled Clay Bird, chief economic development director for the city.
City funds still go to the chamber for economic development through the city's Economic Development Commission, which metes out dollars collected from hotel-motel taxes.
But Bird credited former Mayor Bill LaFortune -- under whom Bird served as an aide and chief of staff from 2002 until 2006 -- with helping make economic development a renewed focus of the city.
Dewey Bartlett, elected in 2009, vowed to become the city's "job-gettingest mayor" upon taking office, again spotlighting the role of the city as a player in economic development.
Now, amid cranked up discussion about new economic development proposals -- Bird said
he knows of four -- that might involve raising taxes, the city has begun crafting a policy for how to best evaluate projects in line for publicly-funded incentives.
"We feel like it's really important that there are measured goals that a project would have to demonstrate with regard to its return on our investment, the public's investment, in a particular project," said Dawn Warrick,
director of the city's planning and economic development department.
With such a policy, "we can better prioritize those projects," Warrick said.
The Tulsa Metro Chamber still takes the lead on plenty of economic development work, most notably the ambitious Tulsa's Future initiative, launched in 2005 and now in its second phase. The effort's goal is to create jobs by attracting and retaining businesses.
The city's EDC kicked in $200,000 in 2011, according to Kim MacLeod, the city's communications director. That's not much compared to the $2.5 million in 2011 contributions from more than 100 businesses, foundations and entities like hospitals and universities reported in Tulsa's Future's most recent annual report.
The effort involves not just travelling to trade shows to recruit businesses and industries. It encompasses programs offering services to existing businesses and even political advocacy to support what the effort's website describes as "pro-business candidates." Cities in the region are "regional partner investors" in the effort; MacLeod said the city is giving $250,000 this year to be such
The city budget also funds an in-house economic development department, however. The current proposed budget includes funding for 113 staff positions in what's been known since April 2011 as
the city's Planning and Economic
Staffing levels have remained largely stable, despite declines in sales tax revenue in 2009 and 2010. Nationally, for many cities, "as tax receipts have declined, so have economic development budgets," said Jeff Finkle, president and chief executive officer for the nonprofit International Economic Development Council, a support organization for those in economic development.
Even now, Finkle noted that the economy is "still kind of bumping along pretty badly."
For cities, this leads to key questions: "Are you going to spend a lot of infrastructure money? If you are, what is that infrastructure going to yield you in terms of private sector investment?"
As far as economic development programs favored by city governments nationally, "I don't see any trends that are sweeping the country by wildfire," said Finkle.
In Tulsa, recent talk has included discussion of airport infrastructure improvements and a so-called "deal-closing fund."
Incentives in place now include development supported by what are called Tax Incentive Districts and Tax Increment Financing Districts, which have a specific geographic focus. For example, the downtown area is such a Tax Incentive District, offering a break on property taxes for certain development.
Along with the Vision 2025 increase in sales tax, enacted by a countywide vote in 2003 and touted as an "effort to grow economic and community infrastructure for future generations," talk has even surfaced about entering a second phase of that initiative.
Asked about the likelihood that voters will be asked in November to approve a possible tax increase to support some of these ideas, Bird said, "I don't think anybody really knows yet."
Before working under LaFortune in the mayor's office, Bird served as a city councilor for two years.
Compared to economic development attitudes in his first days with city government, "the biggest change that I've seen is, we have really tried to make strides to become more customer-service oriented, as it relates to development," Bird said.
His job involves working closely with
"Maybe a company is needing to expand and they need a water line extension," Bird said.
He said his job is to try to solve such infrastructure problems.
Sometimes, the efforts can be of extreme importance for a company, with Bird describing a recent meeting with a business "that came very close to pulling out of the city," Bird said.
While the political discussion goes on, Warrick's office is researching what sort of incentive guidelines have been put in place in other cities. Other times, her office might work with developers fearful of delays.
"Time is money in the development process. Especially once it reaches the point where you're out doing construction," Warrick said, with the goal to streamline the permitting process.
It may be difficult to determine exactly how much the city influences economic growth, but Warrick said it's vital for officials to be focused on "how to move the city forward."
"Somebody's got to have that outlook and understanding that all of the day to day
things really do feed up into a bigger picture," Warrick said.
Send all comments and feedback regarding City to
URL for this story: http://www.urbantulsa.comhttp://www.urbantulsa.com/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A50916