Tulsa chamber, city leaders look to try again on airport upgrades
BY WAYNE GREENE World Senior Writer
Wednesday, December 26, 2012
12/26/12 at 7:42 AM
You might call it Vision2.1.
The same people who organized Tulsa County's unsuccessful Vision2 campaign to aid key industrial tenants at the Tulsa airport-industrial complex say they are working on new plans to bring those facilities up to date, and that could include another go at getting voters to approve taxes to pay for the work.
"The election is obviously over," said Tulsa Regional Chamber President and CEO Mike Neal. "The crisis is not. Our community still has a pending job crisis, and I think really, post-election, we've all been forced to go back to the drawing board to determine what a Plan B could be all aimed at trying to avert a job crisis or a massive job loss for this community and this region."
The Vision2 proposal included a $254 million economic development proposal. Some $200 million of that package was designated for improvements to facilities used by three industrial clients at the airport: American Airlines, Spirit AeroSystems and IC Bus.
Tulsa County voters rejected the proposal on a 96,000 to 122,352 vote.
It's too early to say what Plan B will look like, Neal and Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett say, but it's inevitable that another effort to preserve jobs at the airport complex will be put forward.
Preliminary meetings between political and business leaders have been held and talks with American Airlines have started with an eye toward a deal for the most urgent projects sometime in 2013 that will solidify the airline's maintenance presence in Tulsa for the future, Neal said.
"There's no way on the face of the Earth that we can come up with a game plan to do $200 million worth of infrastructure enhancement in the next 12 months, that's clear," Neal said. "But I think there's some piece of it. I don't know what that number is."
The state might be a player in incentives, and taxes included in a renewal of the Fix Our Streets campaign might be part of the mix, but neither is likely to be the ultimate solution to the funding issue.
"I think this is Tulsa's baby," Neal said. "I think this is a problem that Tulsa is going to have to solve."
Neal said he anticipates having a price tag for urgent projects worked out with American officials in the next few weeks.
"We're in the early stages of discussion," he said. "They're having to go back to the drawing board just like we are, and are having to try to determine what Plan B is and what a Plan B ultimately looks like."
A spokeswoman for American Airlines verified that the discussions about the company's needs in Tulsa are under way with local leaders.
"American Airlines continues to work with Tulsa community leaders to strengthen our ties and operations in the region," said Andrea Huguely. "We have had a strong presence in Tulsa since the maintenance base opened in 1946, and we're committed to future operations as part of the new American.
"We have always had a good relationship with the city, and we look forward to finding new ways to build on a partnership that works best for our employees, our stakeholders and the surrounding community."
Bartlett said the Vision2 package failed for a number of reasons, including lack of unanimity in support among elected officials, voter misunderstanding of what was being proposed, a necessarily fast calendar for consideration and resentment of American Airlines, which was in bankruptcy and negotiating contract concessions with its workers.
Bartlett said he has regrets about the results of the campaign, but says he isn't sure he'd do it much differently if he had the chance.
The November failure isn't a reason to give up on preserving the jobs, he said.
"The problem is still there. Those job are still in jeopardy without a doubt," Bartlett said.
American Airlines is divesting itself of old, inefficient airplanes and replacing them with larger jets that won't fit in the company's Tulsa International Airport facilities.
"It was portrayed as a bailout of American Airlines, which it absolutely was not," Bartlett said.
Whether the facilities are occupied by American or some other tenant, they have to be up-to-date or they have no value, he said.
"If (planes) don't fit in most of our hangars, then they will have to go elsewhere to be maintained," he said. "That is our basic problem."
Taking the issue before voters again is a possibility, he said.
"I think that we need to have a continuing process of educating and informing the voters on economic development, how it works and why it is necessary and also about the situation at the airport," Bartlett said.
Bartlett and Neal said they don't regret including a deal-closing fund of at least $52.9 million in the Vision2 proposal, although that element drew sharp criticism from the measure's opponents, who portrayed it as a slush fund for corporate welfare.
"The situation with the closing fund is really plain and simple," Neal said. "Almost every city in America of any size has some type of local job creating fund, a deal-closing fund."
Without such a fund, economic development is like sending a batter to the plate without a bat and expecting a home run, he said.
"Philosophically, I'm adamantly opposed to it, but the problem is all other communities in America are doing it, and if we want to play the game, and we want to have a chance, we have to have the tools," Neal said. "We're focused on winning. Winning is both new jobs creation and existing job retention, and all of those are requiring some sort of local engagement and participation."
Public funding trend grows
Public funding of incentives to aerospace jobs has taken off in recent years.
The Wall Street Journal recently reported that states have provided at least $1 billion in incentives to aerospace companies since 2008 in the competition for jobs.
That includes $450 million to attract Boeing 787 engine jobs to South Carolina, $158 million in incentives for Airbus jobs going to Alabama and $57 million to lure Rolls Royce aircraft engine jobs to Virginia, the newspaper reported.
Original Print Headline: City looks to try again on airport upgrades
Wayne Greene 918-581-8308