After Decades Of Wait And See, River's Future At Crossroads - - Tulsa, OK - News, Weather, Video and Sports - |

AP - 9/30/2007 7:15 PM - Updated 9/30/2007 7:42 PM

After Decades Of Wait And See, River's Future At Crossroads

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TULSA, Okla. (AP) -- For more than 70 years, leaders here have been studying how the Arkansas River should best be developed. But plans always seemed to turn into more plans and complacency set in. This town would always have the river, residents figured.

Meanwhile, other places in the region, such as Memphis, Tennessee, San Antonio and Kansas City, Missouri, decided to make waterfront development a priority. Oklahoma City also capitalized with its Metropolitan Area Projects initiatives, the first of which turned an aging warehouse district into Bricktown, the city's nightlife and entertainment hub, complete with a mile-long pedestrian canal.

Tulsa, as it had for years, lagged behind.

On October 9, residents will decide the future of their river, and region, as they vote on a 4/10ths of a cent countywide sales tax increase that would raise $282 million for its development, taking it from rough diamond to crown jewel of northeastern Oklahoma, supporters say.

It would cost the average family making $50,000 a year between $4-7 a month, and senior citizens and lower income residents could be eligible for annual rebates.

"The river is our greatest natural asset," said Tulsa Mayor Kathy Taylor, elected to her first term in 2006. "It's time to quit studying it and develop it."

But the campaign has touched off a heated debate over what the proper role of government is: should it be in the river development business, or stick to providing meat-and potatoes services such as police, fire, roads and utilities?

Some city leaders are lining up to sink the tax, saying it's the wrong proposal at the wrong time.

"People are taxed to the max," said Wade McCaleb, mayor of Broken Arrow, a Tulsa suburb. "We think this is going to be harmful."

The tax, which would go into effect in January, would be collected for seven years and pay for low-water dams, land acquisition, pedestrian bridges and habitat improvements along 42 miles of the river from Keystone Dam to the city of Jenks. And, if voters approve the increase, the private sector has pledged to kick in at least $117 million more for picnic areas, improved public restrooms and fountains, among other features, along the banks of the river. Of that, $5 million will pay for swimming pools and park improvements in low-income parts of the county.

Economists say the development could create more than 9,000 jobs and have an economic impact of at least $3.5 billion by 2014.

The plan has picked up support on both sides of the political aisle. Republican Congressman John Sullivan and former Governor Frank Keating both back it, as well as prominent Democratic leaders, including current Governor Brad Henry.

With around $1 million to spend on an advertising blitz, the Our River Yes campaign is reaching potential voters online through MySpace, on TV ads and with thousands of ubiquitous signs that have sprouted up throughout town. Opponents say they are working with a much smaller budget, passing the hat at meetings to buy signs and relying on word of mouth to defeat the proposal.

For supporters, who have grown weary of watching development proposals slip away over the years, a "no" vote will amount to another missed opportunity for Tulsa.

"Oklahoma City now has Dell Computer on their man made river," said Tulsa County Commissioner Randi Miller. "The Arkansas River is the future of this community."

But opponents question the need for such a tax when the city's streets and sidewalks need repairs, and say they don't want to hand a blank check to officials for plans that only look good on paper.

Tulsa resident Bob McDowell, who grew up here, wonders how the city expects to maintain all of the new park development when it "can't even keep the swimming pools open or the lights on."

Some, including Tulsa County Assessor Ken Yazel, feel the tax will be too burdensome.

"I feel like the Lone Ranger," Yazel said this week. "I have a moral obligation if I'm aware of something to make sure the taxpayers know."

According to Yazel's office, the typical Tulsa County resident's property and sales-tax burden nearly doubled in the past 10 years, from $5,105 in 1996 to $10,095 in 2006.

"People that don't have money, they're taxed to death now," Tulsa resident Debbie Christian said. "The time isn't right right now, we need our bridges and our roads and even our schools fixed, you know?"

Commissioner Miller notes that Oklahoma ranks 46th in the nation in terms of taxation, and that Tulsa currently has about $200 million waiting to be spent on road repairs that voters have already approved.

"You always will have opposition from groups of people who are antigrowth," Miller said.

Business owner Christopher Reavis, who has lived in Tulsa for 15 years, supports the tax. He estimates it will cost him about a dime a day, and says the future is at Tulsa's fingertips, as it has been for years.

"This is an incredible potential for Tulsa, (but) you can't take potential to the bank," Reavis said.

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