One of the most influential lenders in Tulsa doesn’t have an office in any of the downtown skyscrapers or look to make a profit. In fact, she’s not even a banker.
Rose Washington, executive director of the Tulsa Economic Development Corp., has been a catalyst for economic development in the region for 15 years, helping connect businesses with funding they otherwise wouldn’t get through the nonprofit she has run since late-2001.
Her fingerprints dot her adopted city inside storefronts and office buildings. Most notable is the Shoppes on Peoria, the retail development just north of Pine Street and Peoria Avenue that she took from a stalled plan to reality in not much more than a year when it opened in 2013.
Today she can hardly enter a store there without being greeted by a hug.
“You go out there with Rose and it’s like walking around Rome with the pope,” said Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum. “The folks there just have so much respect and admiration for her because of the work that she’s done.”
Washington’s work and reputation have propelled her to a position that only one other Tulsan has held: chair of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City’s board of directors. She was appointed to the position in January.
Her role at the Fed gives the central banks’ leaders a perspective that augments what economic data show and gives northeastern Oklahoma a voice at the table with key policymakers in Kansas City and in Washington.
Washington’s days possess a heavy, demanding pace that entails meeting with bankers, prospective clients and city leaders in rapid succession. Her objective at these meetings, and TEDC’s role, is to give start-ups and entrepreneurs funding so they can create jobs.
Her life has been in preparation for the role she plays now, she said. “I chose this path intentionally. It wasn’t ... haphazardly or without me thinking about it. It was something that I wanted to do.”
Why she wanted to do it is two-fold, she noted, and can be traced back to her upbringing in Pickens, Mississippi — a tiny town that hugs the windy straits of the Big Black River about 50 miles north of Jackson, the state capital.
Washington was raised by her grandmother, a former sharecropper, in a house her grandmother built not far from the river on what would become Woodrow Avenue.
“She is why I am,” Washington said of the woman who died when she was 22. Washington’s earliest memories of service are doing lawn work and shopping for her grandmother and her friends.
The shopping trips weren’t as simple as driving to the local grocery store and returning home with groceries in the trunk. It meant riding a bike that didn’t have a basket for 2½ miles home with no hands on the handlebars.
“These were the baskets,” said Washington, holding up her arms. “You get going and you go hands-free. … Everything is intentional … your speed, your pace. You know how to go into the yard, how to slant in and slide off the bike so that it doesn’t keep going and you can land on two feet with groceries in tow.”
If those chores and her grandmother shaped her world view, a high school teacher encouraging her to compete in Future Business Leaders of America events inspired some of her confidence.
“I competed in many contests and ran for state office, and I think that stuff gave me courage to just try,” she said.
Keeping up with Washington is an exercise in effort, her staff says.
On Tuesday morning, Joanna Oxford and Janet Pieren sat in Washington’s sparse second-floor office in the Wright Building Annex downtown going through some of the nonprofit’s loans.
Washington hasn’t felt the need to decorate beyond the few pictures and knickknacks that line the shelves behind her desk and the single charcoal drawing of her daughter on the wall, leaving most of the room empty besides the carpet on the floor.
She doesn’t have time, really. She’s almost always moving.
She moves through meetings quickly, peppering her staff with questions about the loans’ structure and the borrowers’ characteristics. It’s controlled yet quietly assertive, similar to the way she drives.
The Tuesday morning meeting came on the tail-end of another with members of Security Bank, offering a window into the unique role TEDC plays.
A large part of the nonprofit’s funding is administered through the city of Tulsa but comes from the federal government in the form of Community Development Block Grant funding. The Tulsa City Council votes each year on how much to allocate to the independent nonprofit, founded by the city in 1979.
Funding ebbs and flows between $300,000 and $1 million. Washington and her staff can stretch the dollar further by not making a loan with only their funding but by “making a loan whole” with a partner bank supplying most of the funding. TEDC also originates and manages loans with funds from the U.S. Small Business Administration.
The money lent by TEDC, Bynum noted, stays in the area and grows the local economy.
Despite funding remaining relatively flat during Washington’s tenure, TEDC has grown exponentially in the 15 years since she took the helm. Its assets in 2001 — the year she was hired — were $1.3 million.
At the end of the 2014-15 fiscal year (the last year for which figures are available) assets were $24 million. And that’s what is still on the books. TEDC’s website estimates that it has had an impact in the hundreds of millions, helping hundreds of small businesses with thousands of employees.
A lot of that economic impact can be traced back to the humble woman from Mississippi who came to Tulsa with her then-husband, Morris Rentie Jr., after working for eight years at the University of Southern California.
In early January, Washington and others met at the west Tulsa Save-A-Lot to plan another potential store in north Tulsa.
Those in the room had strong opinions about the feasibility of another grocer and the quality of the stores there now, showing the intense desire for new options in an area of the city lacking retail. Quietly and purposefully, Washington guided the conversation along and steered it toward a solution.
She let others speak but was quick to fill the silence with inquiries about traffic counts on north Tulsa corners and overlap with existing retail.
When it was over, attendees left her with hugs and a smile, which is common with Washington. Everywhere she goes, she seems to know someone at more than just a handshake level.
Two days later, Washington guided Kansas City Fed President Esther George around the Shoppes on Peoria. She hardly pauses her conversation as she picked up an empty soda can blown across the grass by the wind. Each business owner she spoke with was met with a hug.
The Shoppes on Peoria was a different type of project for TEDC. It was the first time the nonprofit acted as both a lender and a landlord. Washington and TEDC were asked to take over the project after it stalled in 2011, and the federal funding behind it was being threatened.
A little more than a year later, the Shoppes were open. Bynum gives Washington the lion’s share of the credit.
“What she has — which there’s not a whole lot of people in our community that have this … — she has the ability to think about overall goals that we’re trying to achieve as a community and then drill down into the very nuts and bolts,” said Bynum, who was turned down by Washington after offering her a position in his administration.
“She’s not out doing it for her own personal profit. Usually folks that you run into that have that combination of knowledge is because …they’re in that business. they’re doing that to grow their own business. Whereas Rose is doing it simply for the good of our community.”
Bynum isn’t the only one to hold Washington in high regard.
George described her as “an unassuming individual who is trying to do the right thing, and it’s clear that she’s done that in her community and she’s done that in her role on our board.”
Washington, George explained, is an expert in understanding the financial needs of small businesses. It’s a valuable skill that informs George of how people in places like north Tulsa see the economy, which is important to have with an economy as complicated as that of the U.S. and ensuring public trust in the Fed.
“So when I talk to the public, they can have some confidence and say, ‘OK, she is listening to someone like Rose,’” George said. “Rose would know about some of these issues and some of the challenges in a community like north Tulsa to again have the same prosperity and have the same growth that we want the economy as a whole to enjoy.”
Prosperity was on Washington’s mind when she drove the familiar route north from downtown to the Shoppes on Peoria after leaving George at a lunch meeting. She juggled the economic data she continues to learn about on the Fed board with what she sees in the community.
There seems to be less hope among some people these days, she said, wondering where it had gone and knowing that it was necessary for economic success.
She parked at the Shoppes on Peoria and her thoughts, as they often do, turned to her two children. She talked about their differences, their habits and how she felt encouraged when her son, Morris Rentie III, woke up worried that he had missed school before learning it was a snow day.
Mariah Rentie, the daughter she pushed to do extra math problems and paid to read books in the summer, draws inspiration from her mother’s story and work ethic, which she says has driven her to take a heavy course load at the University of Oklahoma.
“She’s worked hard all of her life,” Mariah said. “She’s from Pickens, Mississippi, so to get out of a place like Pickens, especially during the time period that she grew up in. ...“The way she’s made a name for herself — she’s honestly just proven to me that there’s no reason for me to fail because the way she raised me and the way my life is set up, there’s no reason for me to fail. She had every reason to fail. I just kind of let that be my motivation.”
There’s a similar, but not quite the same, tone in Washington’s voice when she talks about TEDC as she does when she talks about her children. Her ambition and pride surface, if only briefly. She’s not satisfied with the success of what she calls “Tulsa’s best kept secret.” She wants to grow, make it more creative and make it one of the premier certified development corporations in the country.
She’s not as confident when she talks about her work on the Fed, thinking she’s out of place in a room full of the nation’s top economic minds. She remembers, however, that she chose her path for a reason.
“I talk myself into feeling like I’m an equal because I just see me as this economic developer who is working on the ground for people who might not have a chance without me or a voice without speaking through mine,” she said.