Written by Amanda Maher
At the turn of the 20th century, Tulsa, Oklahoma, was a small town with just 1,390 residents. The discovery of the Glenn Pool oil field in 1905 brought a rush of entrepreneurs to the region, and by 1930s Tulsa swelled to more than 140,000 residents and was on its way to earning the reputation as the “Oil Capital of the World.”
Tulsa was slow to diversify its industry mix. Companies slowly started to leave Tulsa and head south for Texas, the next frontier of the energy industry. A national recession in 1982 dealt a major blow to Tulsa. Oil prices began a downward spiral, and the city experienced an exodus of oil-related companies.
Over the past three decades, Tulsa has made great strides in rebuilding its economy. The energy industry is still important to Tulsa today, but so too are the engineering, aerospace and advanced manufacturing industries.
Yet in order for these industries to grow, attraction and retention of talented workers is important. This is where Tulsa struggles. The city has had trouble shaking its image as an industrial oil town. Despite efforts to revitalize its downtown, Tulsa watched its top talent head for coastal cities or more locally, Oklahoma City, Indianapolis, Dallas and Kansas City.
Just as the oil industry built the economy of Tulsa in decades past, stewards of the industry are making investments to build the Tulsa of the future. Their strategy: Turning Tulsa into a hip, desirable community for young adults and talented workers by investing in arts and culture.
Tulsa has a philanthropic community that is stronger than nearly anywhere else in the country. Many of the city’s original oil executives established foundations or made endowments to local organizations to support the city’s future vitality. When the oil and gas industry picked up steam in the early 2000s, the philanthropic community’s efforts to pump money into Tulsa’s downtown went into high gear.
Through the support of the Kaiser Family Foundation, the Kauffman Foundation, the Lobeck-Taylor Family Foundation, the Tulsa Community Foundation and others, millions of dollars have gone toward investments in Tulsa’s central business district over the past decade. The 19,200-seat BOK Center ($220 million) and the Oneok Minor League Baseball field ($39.2 million) have brought new visitors downtown, complementing existing art and cultural facilities like the Tulsa Performing Arts Center.
The Kaiser Family Foundation has focused specifically on revitalizing the Brady Arts District, home to the historic Cain’s Ballroom, Brady Theater, and soon, the OKPop pop culture museum. The Foundation spearheaded the $36 million renovation of a former warehouse that now houses the Woody Guthrie Center and a satellite location for the Philbrook Museum of Art.
“I don’t think there’s a place in the state where the cultural [facilities] are that close together,” Julia Kirt, executive director of Oklahomans for the Arts, told Tulsa World.
This investment is helping to grow Tulsa’s popularity as a tourist destination. The New York Times named Tulsa one of its “52 Places to Go in 2015,” citing the city’s vibrant art, cultural and music scene. The newspaper also recognized Tulsa’s commitment to building public parks—such as Guthrie Green, a former track facility redeveloped into a 2.7-acre park and music concourse, and the $350 million, 100-acre Gathering Place riverfront park. With the support of the local philanthropic community, these parks have been programmed to create unique spaces for people of diverse backgrounds to enjoy.
The strategic deployment of city and philanthropic resources has led to follow-on investments by the private sector. Hundreds of new downtown apartments have opened over the past decade, and seven downtown hotels were in various stages of planning and development last year, including a $15 million, 110-room Hampton Inn and Suites. More than 20 bars and restaurants have opened in the Brady Arts District over the past decade alone—in spite of the national economic downturn.
“We were an attractive city in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, but after suburbia developed, downtown became a place where people worked and then went home,” George Kaiser, a Tulsa oil executive, told the New York Times. “Little by little, that’s changing. There’s a real vibrancy downtown, and people are finding out about it.”