Joel Kotkin on cities, Tulsa
Earlier this week, Michael DelGiorno interviewed urban development expert Joel Kotkin. Kotkin knows Tulsa well, having visited and written about our city during the tech boom and the tech crash.
As you might expect, the topic of the interview was Vision 2025, and whether a downtown arena and convention center is going to be the answer to our city's woes.
An MP3 of the interview is linked from the KFAQ home page. It's about 25 MB, so I downloaded it, converted it to a lower bitrate (which means lower quality, but still good enough for voice), and have it available here, weighing in at about 3 MB. (I used Total Recorder to do the conversion, which does a great job of converting between audio file types. It's also capable of capturing any audio on your computer, such as streaming audio of a radio broadcast from any source. It's well worth the price.)
Kotkin visited Tulsa in May 2002 at the invitation of Brent Johnson of SecureAgent.com, as preparations for the Mayor's vision summit were underway. About a year later, I wrote an entry about Kotkin's visit and speech, with links to the Tulsa Whirled news story and op-ed on his visit, as well as his own piece in the Wall Street Journal.
It was fun to think back to that speech and the Q&A that followed. I submitted a question about whether city leaders were right in thinking that expanding the convention center and building a new arena was the key to Tulsa's economic future. From the Whirled's news story:
Kotkin's discouragement of cities seeking to build new arenas and convention centers drew some applause from the crowd.
"I think those leaders are living in the wrong decade," Kotkin said, referring to backers of expanded convention industry facilities. ...
Kotkin contends the convention industry has "played itself out."
"I can think of better things to do with the money," Kotkin said.
Mayor LaFortune's response was funny, but not intentionally so, and looking back, it was an early sign that we weren't getting the bold reformer we had voted for. He began to try to get Kotkin to agree that in Tulsa's case it would be a good idea to invest in convention facilities. Here's what he said in a later interview:
"I was surprised to hear him say that was not necessary as we move forward," LaFortune said in a Friday interview.
"I hear very little dissension in Tulsa that our Convention Center that exists today either needs to be upgraded and modernized or a new convention center built elsewhere," LaFortune said.
"I believe the Chamber officials can point specifically to business we've lost which translates to lost sales tax revenues and impacts the quality of life in our city because we don't have the sales tax dollars that make the basic improvements to our streets and infrastructure," he said.
There was a moment there when Bill LaFortune could have moved forward as a real leader, defying the conventional wisdom and leading Tulsa in a visionary direction, but I guess he didn't have it in him.
I appreciate a couple of things about Kotkin. First, he's skeptical of urban revitalization fads and looks to see if the data are there to back up the claims made for whatever is the latest rage. Second, he understands the value that middle class families add a city, at a time when many urban analysts seem to believe that families are too boring to be important, and that the key is to cater to the tragically hip. I encourage you to browse his website, which not only features his own work, but articles of interest by other authors, like this recent op-ed by John Tierney on the "Circus Maximus Syndrome" that afflicts American mayors. Tierney has this to say about the demise of plans to build a new football stadium on the west side of Manhattan:
The proposed stadium would have been a generic hulk like most other new arenas and convention centers, sitting empty most of the time and preventing the surrounding area from becoming the kind of space that urbanites really revere: a neighborhood with homes and businesses and street life.
Those neighborhoods are hurt by grand public buildings that take up valuable real estate and must be paid for with higher taxes, which drive businesses and the middle class to the suburbs. Older cities have made comebacks the past decade by getting back to that core function of protecting people's lives, but most still haven't figured out how to restore their commercial marketplaces.
Instead, their leaders build projects whose economic benefits go to the Circus Maximus industrial complex: real estate developers, construction workers, bond traders, owners of hotels and sports teams. Aside from the thanks of these groups, politicians also get a pleasant distraction from their mundane duties.
That last paragraph is comes close to containing a concise and accurate list of who pushed Vision 2025 and who's been paid so far from Vision 2025 tax money.