If at first you don’t succeed…

VISION 2025 MAPHello Tulsa.  Welcome to the crossroads.  This crossroads is where our past is intersected by our future.  These are exciting times, thrilling times even in the midst of doom and gloom.   We have reached a truly historic moment and an authentic turning point in our history.  Carpe Diem, as they say… it is time to seize the day.

For longer than most care to remember we have been absent a real sense of purpose or identity or had a passion or dreams for our City’s future.  Over the past ten years or so there has been little for Tulsans to get excited about and we have squandered two opportunities to right the ship.    We have wasted valuable time and look at what it has cost us.  We can’t pay to put water in the pools or mow the grass in the parks.  It appears to be a dreadful state of affairs but not necessarily a life sentence.

It is time to take the bull by the horns.

There has almost been a sense of hopelessness that nothing is going to change and we are doomed to a future of complete mediocrity in spite of all of the good things we have going for us.  Hopefully, all of that is about to change.  This time we are going to get it done.  This time, things are going to be different.   Why?  The truth is we have no choice, we are tired of waiting and Vision 2025 is the last, best good place to start.

If having an up-to-date and state of the art arena and convention facilities was a good idea for Tulsa in the early 60’s it is an even better idea now.  The current facilities served us well for thirty years.  Unfortunately they are now 40 years old and need to be replaced.

We have neglected these things far too long.  The bad news is we are hemorrhaging, on life support, and in desperate need of a transfusion.  The good news is the community only needs about a pint of blood from each of us to begin our recovery.  That means there is an almost painless way out, a rational and feasible path to secure our place in the hierarchy of the communities we are directly competing with for growth and prosperity.

Tulsa has lost its competitive spirit.

You say you don’t think we need to be competitive with other communities?  Think again.  When you get right down to it our whole society is built on competition.   Workers compete for jobs, businesses compete for workers, universities compete for students, and sports teams compete for victories and championships.  Make no mistake about it; communities also compete, for citizens, businesses, industries and growth.

Obviously, it is easy to criticize others when they don’t compete well.  Listen to talk radio after a disappointing OU game when people are ready to fire a national championship football coach because a twenty one year old quarterback had a bad day.  But how many of us are ready to critique our own city’s performance when the unfavorable ratings reflect directly back on us, the complacent citizens.

The point is this.  Basically we are in a war… and at the present we are getting whipped not by the likes of Dallas, Kansas City or even Oklahoma City, but by Wichita, Springfield, and Little Rock.  Right now we are poorly trained, ill equipped, fighting with antique weapons and about as prepared as a one legged man in a butt-kicking contest.  That is why we have fallen in the so-called “Tier” system and lost 35% of our Convention attendance in just the last six years.  As one local writer puts it, by today’s standards our antiquated Convention Center is a dinosaur.

We all share the blame for previous failed attempts to raise the bar.

The long-term economic impact of the higher education investments will likely outperform the other propositions in the package.  But, in terms of establishing the benchmark for our improved community image, nothing will be more symbolic than the arena.  And in years to come as the benefits of our investments begin to accrue it will not be surprising if the most vocal critics of Vision 2025 have a lapse in memory and shamefully boast to all who will listen that they actually supported the measures.

Because there appears to be no “easy” answers many people want to blame City Leaders for our woes when it’s each of us who are really responsible for the current state of affairs.  Our apathy, our willingness to rest on our laurels, our elitist attitude have all contributed to our complacency and led us to a point of desperation.  Look around and you will find cities all across America trying to invigorate and reinvent themselves; so this is not a competition for the timid or faint of heart.

Not only are we not competing at a high level, we really are not even in the game.  Right now we are on the outside looking it at those communities with a vision for the future and bold enough to reach for it.  If a couple of the projects keep coming back it’s because most of the people who should know about these things agree these projects, the Arena and Convention Facilities Improvements in particular, are needed.  Not as some would have you believe because certain people or special interests groups stand to profit or gain.  What an insult for anyone to insinuate such nonsense.  These are public facilities serving the whole community and you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that cities of our size and stature are expected to have these things at the very minimum.   We recognized that in 1963 and we need to reaffirm it in 2003.

For decades, downtown has been forgotten. 

The fact these facilities are located in downtown angers many among the vote no group.  The question is, why?  The 71st Street corridor has never and will never uniquely identify our city because similar big-box shopping areas are to be found all over the United States.  The truth is that Downtown Tulsa is the most distinctive and unique symbol of who we are and where we came from.  Downtown defines who we are like no other area in the entire region.  It is no accident that the much of the public funds in these proposals will be spent in near proximity to Downtown.

It’s ironic that city leaders determined it prudent to expand the proposition to all of Tulsa County though most of the spending will be inside the city.  This presumably because those in the county appear to recognize the benefits of an investment in a strong and vital downtown even more than those who live in the core city.  It makes no sense but that is the way it is, or at least that is the way it has been.

If you are looking for enlightenment and reasons why you should vote yes on the propositions, the best place to start is by analyzing the rhetoric of the vote no group.  For starters, their leader has been reported saying we are in a depression, not a recession, and we have yet to hit bottom.  What a foolish thing for someone to say, let alone someone in a so-called leadership position.

Excuses, excuses, and more excuses. 

The opposition says this is not the right time, but they said that in 1997 when this town was enjoying one of its most positive and prosperous times ever.  There will never be the perfect time or the “right” or “best” plan.  We simply can’t wait any longer to create a better plan.  The time to act is now.

The opposition says that the plan is too bold in these difficult times.  Many would argue the plan is not bold enough with so many other legitimate and expensive needs still waiting for public support like a new central library, and River Parks development and improvements.

You hear other similar complaints about all sorts of things.  “It’s a pie in the sky vision”, “all run by special interests”, “they didn’t have public involvement”, “I wasn’t invited”, “they are pulling our strings”, blah, blah, blah.  Over the last few years there have been countless organizing events, meetings, planning sessions, sponsored by diverse organizations, all open to the public, and all aggressively promoted by the mainstream media.  If anyone feels left out of the process, it’s preposterous to blame anyone but himself or herself. The Mayor’s Vision Summit got the ball rolling.  It was open to the public and everyone was invited.  The notice was on the front page of the newspaper and all of the TV stations announced it.  Apparently some were waiting at home for an engraved invitation while others joined in, rolled up their sleeves and vowed to help in any way they could.

To lament that it is the same 25 or 30 people sitting around a table calling the shots is simply ludicrous.  We could easily say the same thing about the opposition.  Aren’t these the same people who opposed the last two revitalization proposals?   The fact is, this is obviously a non-partisan issue, which has been supported by the last two administrations, both democrat and republican.  To claim that all this is cooked up by a bunch of fat cats sitting in a back room smoking cigars and carving up the spoils is laughable.  If people actually got involved in the process they saw hundreds, even thousands of Tulsans all clamoring for a brighter municipal future.

Time will tell who was right, and who wasn’t. 

Some of the opposition leadership maintains that we should address our current needs for police, fire, streets, etc. before we worry about luxury items.   Frankly, this is about the only complaint they have that makes any sense at all.  Obviously there are two schools of thought on the matter.  You can raise taxes on the existing taxpayers to fund these daily needs, especially during difficult economic times, or you can divert a portion of the tax revenue to community development and improvements, which will attract more people and more businesses to share the tax burden for day-to-day services.  It’s all about expanding the tax base to reduce the individual burden.

They point to the fact there are no “guarantees” that all of the hoped for benefits will actually materialize if we do approve these four separate components.  The more salient fact is that if we do not approve these proposals, we are virtually assured that we will see no benefits, of that we can be sure.

A former City Official is worried that the tax will begin immediately, but we won’t see any benefits for several years.  Pardon me but isn’t that the way it works?  The economic impact of these proposals will run into the billions of dollars and the benefits will be far-reaching and last for many years to come.  Of course you have to have the seed money to get everything going.

You can’t harvest what you don’t plant. 

When you think about it, it’s really not much different than the biblical truths we try to teach our children, about sewing and reaping, planting and harvesting, investing now for future rewards.  And it’s not like anyone has to take out a second mortgage on the homestead to make this thing work. This brings us to a very important point.  It is difficult to identify the plan of the opposition because basically they have none.  Their sage advice is that we wait presumably for a better time.  Well, sorry but we are under attack, not by sinister forces but by the shear momentum of a changing world.  Waiting will not only get you nowhere, it will cause you to go backwards and to decline.

In fact, it is interesting that most of the opposition does not really focus on the projects or the proposed plans at all; they just don’t want to pay for them.  “What’s in it for me” they say.  It’s ironic that these are the same people who bask in the civic pride we all sense in many ways because of the unbelievable generosity of generations of Tulsa’s most prosperous and well know families.

Families like Skelly, LaFortune, Warren, Zink, Schusterman, Gilcrease, Phillips, Zarrow, Westby, Siegfried and so on who have populated our landscape with the brick and mortar symbols which make us the unique community of Tulsa.  Where would we be today if those philanthropists had asked the “what’s in it for me” question?  It is pretty safe to assume that our city would not look much like it does now.

We must invest in ourselves.  Nobody else is going to do it.  

Okay, most of us do not have the resources to donate a hospital, a stadium, a park, or a museum but we can contribute financially without making an enormous or life changing sacrifice.  Freedom comes with a price, and so does prosperity.  You say you don’t want to pay for these improvements…hmmm, well isn’t that a novel idea.  Perhaps we can get the people of Ft Worth to pay for them?  And while they are at it, maybe they would pick up a couple of our mortgage payments and some living expenses as well.

The bottom line is that this proposal is affordable for everyone.  Let’s not forget that most of a family’s income and expenditures are NOT subject to sales tax, including your home mortgage, utilities, car payments, insurance, medical and dental services, contributions, etc.   If the average family spends $6,000 to $12,000 a year on sales taxed purchases that is an additional $60 to $120 per family per year or $5 to $10 per month.

And because we normally pay it out at a few pennies at a time it will not create a terrible hardship for anybody. Admittedly, sales taxes are somewhat regressive in nature but this one-penny will not create an enormous burden for even the poorest of the poor.  There is everything right and nothing wrong with asking every citizen to contribute since every citizen will benefit both directly and indirectly, especially the impoverished and neglected who so desperately rely upon City, County and State services to help make ends meet.  Grow the tax base, reduce the individual burden, and then you can more comfortably meet the needs of the poor and disadvantaged in the community.

Stop waiting for the perfect plan and act now!

Okay, the one thing we can all probably agree on is that this is not a perfect plan, but then what is?   The addition of the Boeing proposal has complicated things to a degree since other well deserving projects had to be put on hold.  The fact is community activists have identified about four billion (repeat… four billion) dollars in wants and needs and most of them have a serious degree of merit.  So trying to identify the most deserving projects will always leave us with those who are disappointed and upset.  The Vision 2025 proposal is just a beginning step in the right direction.

Getting the Boeing deal may be a long shot it is hard to tell at this point.  If you doubt the benefits of landing this corporate giant explain why 26 states have presented proposals when only six were actually invited.  The point is if we don’t get Boeing we can always come back to the voters and ask them to redirect that portion of the funds into some of the other much needed improvements that are now are on the back-burner.

As has been repeated often, we have many pieces in place to make Tulsa a truly great city for its residents and a destination for newcomers.  But the major players who represent the countless millions in potential private investment will not make commitments until they see proof of the community’s resolve to provide an anchor for their investment capital.  We simply have to kick-start the process by stepping into the voting booth and accepting our responsibility as dutiful and informed citizens who are ready to participate equally in the public / private partnership.

Look in the mirror to find inspiration. We can do this. 

Just about everyone recognizes that we have problems, not the least of which is a bruised image and a damaged ego.  It basically boils down to this:  If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.   The vote no elements seem to be looking for someone to champion our cause, someone to come up with a plan and the means to implement that plan, someone to guide us through the maze of confusion and disagreement into the Promised Land of a rich and culturally enchanting city.

Perhaps we need look no further than the mirror for our hero.  If each of us will contribute a few extra pennies a day that will be enough get us back on track.  Okay, it may take a while for the public’s image of our city to change.  But it is not hard to imagine how good all of us are going to feel the first time we drive downtown and see the cranes that will build the new arena.  It’s bound to create a true sense of pride among even the most cynical among us.  It will be a symbol of the NEW Tulsa.  It will be a benchmark for our future progress.

So my friends, indeed there is hope and that hope can be realized on September 9th, 2003.  It’s pretty simple really, we just go to the polls and say NO to Jim Hewgley and his band of wary-men, and say YES to progress, yes to higher education, yes to new jobs, yes to higher payrolls, yes to health care, yes to research, yes to new public facilities, yes to quality of life projects, yes to parks, trails, and museums, yes to an exciting and promising future, yes, yes, yes to a nearly one billion dollar desperately needed investment into our ailing community.  We can have all of this for just pennies a day.

Stand tall Tulsans, the day of your community redemption is near.  Just remember when you are driving to the polls to ask yourself a few simple questions.  Do I want change?  Do I want a more dynamic and prosperous City in which to live?  Am I willing to make a small sacrifice for the benefit of the larger community?  And one final question:   If I don’t do my part, who will?

Originally published in Urban Tulsa Weekly, August 20, 2003

 

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