Just when you think things are on the right track, something happens to remind you just how tenuous that can be.
Tulsa city councilors and the mayor, Dewey Bartlett, met recently to discuss what sort of projects they’d like to see in an upcoming sales tax proposition to improve the city. One idea that has been floated was setting aside funds to purchase land and expand the boundaries of the Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness Area.
And then the mayor chimed in with these, shall we say, interesting words:
“My suggestion … would be that certain portions of the land in the area be set aside for purposes that would generate sales tax for the city of Tulsa. In other words, right on top of Turkey Mountain have an area set aside for a restaurant, beautiful views of the city, a place for people when they go walking, they could go see it. …
“The community, the taxpayers, not all are interested in walking through the woods at Turkey Mountain, but they will be very interested in going up to a restaurant or going up to a facility where they could sit and watch, look, experience nature, whatever that might be.”
My friend Kevin Canfield, a former coworker who now reports for The Frontier website, recorded this account in his Hyperlocal blog. Being a decent reporter, he followed up with the mayor’s office. Bartlett’s chief of staff sought to clarify this, saying Bartlett isn’t offering a plan that specific, but did say that some sort of commercial development there needs to be considered, something akin to the Blue Rose restaurant on the other side of the river close to downtown.
When I read this, I was stunned. A few angry, coarse words floated through my mind. Given everything that went down after Simon Properties wanted to plop an outlet mall there, how in the world would any elected official in this city even dream of such a thing?
I took a deep breath. Sat on it overnight. And then came to a few conclusions.
A little background: About 14 months ago, Simon Properties announced plans to put an outlet mall at the intersection of U.S. 75 and 61st Street, right on the western edge of Turkey Mountain and overlooking a YMCA kids camp just to the north. While some voiced support, most people opposed the plan. Trail users of all kinds – hikers, runners, cyclists and more – signed a petition by the thousands, wrote council members and showed up en masse at public forums to discuss it. The overwhelmingly negative reaction to the proposal forced Simon to seek another location, and put locals on a path to try to secure the land in question from future development.
Now some context: While most of the city council disagreed, Bartlett was a huge proponent of Simon’s initial plan, even in the face of serious opposition.
So, some conclusions…
First, the mayor does not seem to realize how strongly people feel about keeping Turkey Mountain free from development and in a natural state. I’m not sure how this is possible, given the one-sided opposition to the original Simon plan, or the figures cited that Turkey Mountain will see more visitors on a good weather weekend than the city’s top tourist draw, the Tulsa Zoo. His comments about putting commercial development “right on top of” Turkey Mountain sounds tone deaf, defiant, or maybe both.
Second, he doesn’t seem to understand that the economic value of the land is not tied to how many cash registers are ringing there. True, Turkey Mountain delivers no direct revenue to the city. But indirectly, it generates millions of dollars. Cyclists spend thousands of dollars apiece on their bikes and associated gear. Runners and hikers might not spend as much, but they do spend – apparel, shoes, backpacks, hiking poles, and more. Turkey Mountain hosts a number of running and cycling races which draw loads of money in the form of entry fees, and attract many out-of-town competitors who spend locally on food, gas, lodging and, of course, gear and apparel. Those are real dollars going into real cash registers in real businesses, and attached to it all are sales tax dollars which flow into the city’s coffers. Cash registers don’t ring on Turkey Mountain. But many of them around town ring because of Turkey Mountain.
Third, he doesn’t seem to appreciate Turkey Mountain’s value as a community asset. Tulsa has lots of places to eat and shop. I enjoy many of them. But few cities like Tulsa have a place where you can walk into the woods and see miles of it in a completely natural state. People hunger for this kind of thing. City parks are not the same, and not everyone can pack up and drive a couple of hours to a national forest or state park to be in nature. We have it here, within our city limits. This has amazing community health benefits, and when you’re looking to attract people and businesses to town, having an asset like Turkey Mountain – left in its natural state – is a big drawing card, especially to those young professionals looking for a place for their new start-up.
Fourth, he and his chief of staff don’t seem to understand that Turkey Mountain is not the same as 18th Street and Riverside Drive, where the Blue Rose restaurant is located. Hey, I love me some Blue Rose. But the restaurant sits in a developed, urbanized area and is right off a busy four-lane thoroughfare. It is true that it dovetails nicely with the paved trails of the northern River Parks system. But you can’t compare that part of River Parks – a manicured park area – to Turkey Mountain, which is intentionally left wild. It’s a bad analogy, and the mayor’s office should know better.
Lastly, such an idea has the same infrastructural and environmental problems that the Simon mall proposal had. More traffic on the steep hills and sharp curves of 61st Street and Elwood Avenue is a bad idea all around. Light pollution and litter would be an issue, denigrating the experience just so some diners could have a view. And the stormwater drainage from hard-surface parking lots would be problematic in keeping Turkey Mountain’s watershed clean.
Whether or not land acquisition for Turkey Mountain’s expansion becomes part of the Vision 2025 sales tax renewal plan is one thing. I’d love to see it, just as long as the land in question remains wild. But even if it is not on the ballot, it seems the mayor’s office is in need of a deeper education on this issue. Given how thoroughly that message was conveyed over the past 14 months, that seems like a mountain-sized task.
Want to let the mayor know how you feel? Send him a letter here.