One of the questions that has been raised by some people is what harm could come from building an outlet mall at Turkey Mountain.
Over the past few months, I’ve written about this quite often. The construction of an outlet mall at the proposed location will wipe out many acres of woodlands. It will consume many existing, scenic trails. It will encroach on wildlife habitat. And with the infrastructure expansions that will be necessary to handle the expected traffic at the shopping center, even more trails and woodlands all along 61st Street and Elwood Avenue will be consumed. The mere presence of an outlet mall at the place where Simon Properties wants to build will have a negative impact on all of Turkey Mountain. The destruction of forest, the light pollution, potential drainage issues, the noise and more can only be bad for Turkey Mountain, and thus bad for the city.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, however, there is more. All of that is rooted in the history of outlet malls in Oklahoma.
Back in the 1990s, a company by the name of Tanger built an outlet mall in Stroud, just off the Turner Turnpike. It was touted for its ideal location between Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and the high traffic that highway carried.
It was opened with much ceremony, but before long it was already headed for trouble. Tanger Outlet Mall’s future was cut short when it was destroyed by the May 3, 1999, tornado, but the truth is that it was headed for closure anyway. Insurance funds could have rebuilt the place had it been worth Tanger’s time. But what’s left there now? A huge empty lot.
Fast-forward to just three years ago. A redevelopment project in Oklahoma City ended with the opening of the Outlet Shoppes at Oklahoma City, just off Interstate 40 in one of the fastest-growing areas of that city’s metro area.
The ideal location, high traffic and favorable publicity wasn’t able to stop that mall’s loss of a major tenant this past fall. Saks Off Fifth, which is operated by Saks Fifth Avenue, is already pulling up stakes. So a large anchor tenant in a highly visible shopping center in Oklahoma’s largest and most prosperous community is already withering on the vine.
Is this a harbinger of things to come for that development? If more shops there close, what will become of that mall? Could it become a huge, barren lot lined by empty stores? Time will tell, but if nothing else, it speaks to the risk involved in such projects, even with marquis brands from established companies being part of the plan.
Now look at what Simon Properties wants to do at Turkey Mountain. The company wants to build an outlet mall off a highway with less traffic than I-40, on a hilly road not designed for high traffic, with only one entry and exit point. And they want to do it in an area already flooded with retail businesses just to the south.
I’d argue that the proposed Premium Shoppes at Turkey Mountain is a plan destined for failure. And what will that leave us with, should that come to pass? A barren parking lot with empty buildings sitting atop what used to be wild, old-growth forest that people and wildlife once enjoyed. A city asset will become a liability, and there won’t be any chance of recovering what it used to be.
There are places where you can build outlet malls and give them a decent shot at success. Most of those places are going to be in areas that have already been developed. But the bad thing about ripping down a forest is that when it’s gone, it’s just gone. When you look at the location Simon is proposing, and the dubious model it has chosen, you have to wonder if allowing this project to go forward is in the city’s best interest. I’d say no.
But I’m not the one who needs convincing. Tulsa’s city councilors are the ones who need to hear from you. There are other options for an outlet mall, and there are better uses for the land in question at Turkey Mountain.
Simon Properties will very likely be asking for taxpayer support to build its mall in the form of a tax increment finance district, which basically would give Simon a seven-figure subsidy to embark on this risky project. Any TIF district would need to be approved by the city council.
A couple of things: A TIF district can be good, and the money is eventually repaid if all goes well. Shopping centers can be good. Economic growth is not necessarily the enemy of wild places.
But limited traffic, poor access and a dubious business model don’t seem to be worth risking wilderness land and taxpayer money, and that’s exactly what’s being proposed. Even the guarantees in a TIF district agreement do nothing to restore a site if it goes belly up. So contact your city councilors. Ask them to do right by Turkey Mountain and to come up with a comprehensive plan for how land at Turkey Mountain is to be used. Ask them to be good stewards of our money. Tell them, via phone call or email, that an outlet mall at Turkey Mountain is a bad idea.