Officials: Recovery From Sales Tax Defeat Could Take Years

Wednesday, October 10th 2007, 2:40 pm
By: News On 6

TULSA, Okla. (AP) _ It could take several more years before Tulsa County voters see another plan to develop prime land around the Arkansas River, while economic opportunities continue to slip away from the area, officials said Wednesday. On Tuesday, voters defeated a countywide sales tax increase proposal that supporters said would have raised $282 million for river development.

Supporters said it was a rare opportunity to turn the river into a crown jewel of northeastern Oklahoma. Opponents, including several city officials, said the tax was too burdensome, and wanted streets, bridges and sidewalks repaired first.

With a ``no'' vote, the city also lost a chance at landing a major development on the river's west bank and at least $117 million pledged by the private sector for river improvements, such as fountains and better public restrooms. Both were contingent on the passage of the 4/10ths of a cent tax increase that would have paid 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.

``A lot of towns would kill for that amenity,'' said Rick Huffman, chief executive officer of HCW Development Co., which announced plans for a 700,000-square-foot project on the west bank of the Arkansas River contingent on a ``yes'' vote.

``To just let it sit there and be undeveloped and give it back to the next generation of citizens _ people need to think not about themselves, but about their kids, and their kids' kids.''

Huffman's group also developed the Branson Landing project in Missouri, a popular waterfront shopping, dining and entertainment destination.

For supporters, Tuesday's ``no'' vote meant another missed development opportunity for Tulsa, while other cities such as Memphis, Tennessee, San Antonio and Kansas City, Missouri, continue to profit from their waterfront projects.

Oklahoma City voters also recognized the potential years ago, approving an initiative that turned an aging warehouse district into Bricktown, the city's nightlife and entertainment hub, complete with a mile-long pedestrian canal.

``It's a missed opportunity for Tulsa County,'' Tulsa County Commissioner Randi Miller said. ``Now this will go on the shelf and we will have to wait until the time the area changes, and maybe the young people who are in their 20s, when they're our age, they'll try it again.''

But tax opponents, including Broken Arrow Mayor Wade McCaleb, said the vote failed in his community because voters saw millions of their tax dollars ``going to pay for projects in other cities.'' He also said smaller cities in the county were not included enough in early discussions about the merits and shortcomings of the tax. Voters in his community sunk the proposal by about a 2-to-1 margin.

``The lesson they learned last night is you cannot take a countywide ballot and not have everyone at the table to discuss it,'' he said.

Tulsa City Councilman Roscoe Turner, who opposed the tax because he wanted the city's aging infrastructure to be fixed first, called the argument that it might take years to bring a similar project back to the area ``rhetoric.''

``That's the story they always use if they want to get something,'' Turner said. ``It happens when people want it to happen.''

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