Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Thoughts on the Tulsa river plan

This blog remains undecided on Tulsa's river development plan.

I have yet to be convinced that either side has a definitive case.

There are several issues in play here.

The overarching issue in my mind is the regressive nature of sales taxes. Sales taxes hurt working class people the most, and rich people the least. That's an established fact. Thus, in principle, I am against sales taxes, and I believe that if they are used, they should only be used when no other means are available to pay for something, and the thing being paid for is urgently necessary.

Thus, in the case of the river vote, I need two questions answered: 1) Is there another way to pay for river development, and 2) Is river development urgently necessary?

I'm not convinced that the answer to either question is yes.

Let's look at the questions one at a time.

1) Is there another way to pay for river development?

The plan is to spend the money raised from the sales tax to build low water dams and improve the general infrastructure around the river. After that has been accomplished, the "private sector" has promised to pitch in a large sum to build entertainment venues along the river.

Clearly, the money raised from the tax is a significant portion of the overall funds for the project. Thus, it would be unrealistic to ask the private sector to fork over the rest of the money and forgo the tax altogether. However, I'm still not convinced that a county-wide sales tax increase, when our sales tax is already significantly higher than many other places in the country, is the right way to do this - especially since places in the county such as Broken Arrow and North Tulsa will see very little direct benefit from the tax.

2) Is river development urgently necessary?

I'm not convinced that river development should be our first priority as a city right now. With our deteriorating roads, our inability to keep public pools open in the summer, our rising crime rate, and the continued deterioration of living conditions in North Tulsa including the closing of a major grocery store, aren't there other things we could and should be doing with our money?

On the other hand, other cities that have developed their rivers have seen some nice benefits. Anyone who has been to San Antonio's Riverwalk can tell you that it's a nice place for a pleasant evening. River development would bring jobs and tourism dollars to Tulsa, and we could spend that money doing the other things that we need to do.

Thus, I'm still not sure about the answer to question #2.

The other issue that concerns me about river development is the kind of development that will occur.

Anyone who has been to Jenks' Riverwalk outdoor dining and shopping locale will no doubt be aware that it is geared exclusively toward the wealthy. Restaurants and shops are expensive and trendy, and the whole place seems like a very fake, very safe, very rich, alternative to real, main street America. The entire venue is private property, meaning that "freedom of speech" laws do not apply, and any undesirables can be kicked off the premises at will. That may not mean much in the abstract, but in an America where "public space" is giving way to "private public space" like malls, where you can't set up booths and address political issues, or hand out fliers, or wear t-shirts with political slogans, it's kind of a disturbing trend.

And it completely alienates the working class, who can't afford to enjoy the restaurants, or shop in the exclusive boutiques. Sure, there's a free outdoor music amphitheater, but that's the only real concession made to communal space.

There's also a new housing development going in near the Jenks Riverwalk. Is any of it affordable housing geared toward working class families? No, it's all exclusive, expensive, trendy condos and overpriced apartments.

If Tulsa's river development project is going to turn the entire length of the Arkansas through Tulsa into an extension of the Jenks Riverwalk, then I don't want any part of it.

If, on the other hand, river development means the creation of affordable housing along the river, mixed-use buildings, multipurpose parks and recreation centers, and restaurants and shopping that can be enjoyed by Tulsans regardless of social class, then I'm all for it. My fear, unfortunately, is that the Tulsa river development project, since it relies so heavily on private money, will turn the Arkansas river into a giant, exclusive strip mall of high-priced restaurants, shopping, and other amenities that will be out of reach of the very people who will take the brunt of the sales tax burden from the project: the working class.

I've seen the projections and it all looks very nice and pretty and exciting. I'm just not completely convinced that this particular river development project is what Tulsa needs right now, or that it will provide a benefit to all of Tulsa's citizens, not just the wealthy and middle class.

Thus, I remain, for now, undecided. If someone would like to try to convince me of one or the other viewpoint, I am open to your arguments.

Vote "Maybe" October 9th!