Now it can be told: Tulsa's economy has been improving


Back during the campaign, I pointed out that the principal strategy for the vote yes forces was to make people believe that things were so bad that raising taxes by a billion dollars was the only hope for our city. Mayor Bill LaFortune himself said at a forum for arts groups that if the tax package didn't pass, he didn't know what hope we had for the future. The message of doom and gloom was plausible, given the job losses over the past two years, and the vote yes forces sold it relentlessly, claiming that Tulsa would dry up and blow away unless we voted to raise our taxes. TV Guide's plan to move jobs from Tulsa to Hollywood, and Citgo's possible move to Houston were well timed to make Tulsans feel more helpless and hopeless.

But there are indications that Tulsa's economy began to turn around during the summer, along with the national economy, and only now are we hearing some of this good news, now that the desperate electorate has given the County Commission $1 billion to play with. These are developments that cannot be credited to the sales tax increase, because they happened before the increase was even approved by voters, even before the increase was scheduled to be put before the voters. But you can bet that the politicians will try to claim that their tax made Tulsa come alive again.

On Tuesday, September 16, the Whirled reported the latest Manpower Employment Outlook Survey, which says that 37% of Tulsa employers surveyed planned to add workers during the fourth quarter, 17% plan to reduce staffing, and the remainder plan no changes at all.

"It looks pretty favorable," said Mike Arndt, Manpower's manager for the Tulsa area.

The slight increase in hiring comes after two years of major scaling back by area companies, he said.

"Now, they're at a place where they have to add jobs," Arndt said. "They have to increase their head count to keep up with the workload.

"This is a positive thing, because it shows a back-to-back quarter slight upswing in our hiring activity in Tulsa." ...

The Tulsa area's jobless rate during July -- the latest month for which statistics are available -- was 6.4 percent, down from 6.7 percent in June, according the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission.

For Oklahoma City, the hiring outlook was less optimistic. Only 13 percent of those surveyed planned to increase their work forces, while 27 planned cutbacks. An additional 60 percent expected no change.

This is the second quarter of good news for Tulsa: Back on June 18, Manpower's survey for the third quarter of 2003 showed 33% of employers planning to hire, 13% and planning to reduce staff, the first time in a year that companies hiring outnumbered companies cutting back. Tulsa employers were more optimistic than those in the nation as a whole -- only 20% of employers in the national survey planned to add staff. And in the same survey, only 13% of Oklahoma City employers planned to add staff, while 27% planned cuts, the same numbers as the previous quarter.

To its credit, the Tulsa Whirled did publish good economic news in its business section, but its more widely-read news section reported the dire predictions of our political leaders. Our leaders could have given us the good and the bad, could have been honest about our situation, but they prefered instead to panic the public to accept a billion-dollar tax increase.

Meanwhile, Mickey Thompson, the head of economic development for the Tulsa Metro Chamber, gave a speech to small business owners announcing more good news:

[Thompson] discussed the city's economic outlook for 2004, focusing on employment, income and manufacturing output statistics compiled by chamber economist Bob Ball.

Despite Tulsa's unemployment woes, there is some uplifting news.

"There's a better than reasonable chance of six new companies coming in, and three more adding substantially to their employment," Thompson said.

And that's with or without the addition of a Boeing Co. jet assembly plant that may or may not be built here. ...

Unemployment in the Tulsa area during July was 6.4 percent.

The outlook is brighter for 2004, though, with the area unemployment rate predicted to be 6 percent.

Like the oil industry bust in the '80s, "everything happened at once," Thompson said of Tulsa's downturn since 9/11, with layoffs and restructuring at American Airlines, WorldCom Inc., Williams Cos. Inc., WilTel Communications Group Inc. and Gemstar-TV Guide International Inc.

"We've been hit as hard as if we were still the oil capitol of the world," he said.

But with the exception of Citgo Petroleum Co., which is considering relocating its headquarters to Houston, there's good news, with many local companies having regrouped and being poised for growth, he said.

Weekly manufacturing wages in Tulsa during July were 2.7 percent above the national average and 15 percent higher than wages statewide.

Thompson said the impact of a Boeing jet assembly plant here would be huge.

The chamber estimates that employment would rise 2.2 percent, personal income would would jump 3.8 percent and unemployment would drop to 5.9 percent in 2004 if Boeing began construction on the plant by the end of next year. ...

So while the city has seen hard times, things are definitely looking up.

"We've passed the bottom, and we're on our way back. In the next two to three years, you won't believe we've come this far," Thompson said. "We're going to have some bad news, but there will be some good news in Tulsa over the next few months."

Some things to notice in Thompson's talk: Jobs are going to come to Tulsa with or without Boeing. Unemployment is projected to be 6% next year, but if Boeing comes it will be 5.9% -- Boeing will have an impact of only one-tenth of one percent on the unemployment rate. And our job woes are not because we don't have a big arena, but because "everything happened at once" -- several major employers suffering major problems all at once.

If you hear of other good news that was postponed until after the vote, drop me a line at blog at batesline dot com.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on September 21, 2003 11:26 PM.

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