The brainstorming over, it's time to sell the vision

Sunday, July 6th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Civic leaders have their vision of what Tulsa should look like in 2025. Now they have to sell it to voters who have rejected two previous economic development efforts.

A weak economy _ Tulsa lost 16,000 jobs in 2002 _ could make it easier to convince county voters to pony up the 1-cent, 13-year sales tax increase that would fund $885 million in proposed projects.

But by dividing the projects into four separate ballot questions, leaders may have added complications to the already difficult job of promoting a package that will cost four times the earlier proposals.

``It's going to be very difficult,'' said Bob Darcy, regents professor of political science and statistics at Oklahoma State University.

The four-part package includes:

_ $350 million in incentives to lure Boeing's new 7E7 jet plant.

_ $22.3 million in incentives for American Airlines.

_ $350.3 million in funding for higher and common education proposals and a regional events center.

_ $157.4 million to improve parks, trails and community centers, enhance infrastructure and attractions including Route 66 and the Oklahoma Aquarium.

The four ballot issues have raised concerns that voters may approve only a few of the categories, or none at all if voters spread out their ``yes'' votes too much between the four questions.

``There's that concern anytime you do it this way,'' Tulsa County Commission Chairman Bob Dick said. ``But we're convinced we've got the right package at the right time with the right projects.''

Tulsa Mayor Bill LaFortune said the proposal would have run the same risk if it was presented in one piece.

``That argument works both ways,'' he said. ``If it was in one big package then one thing that people don't like is enough to bring the whole thing down.''

Dick said the American and Boeing proposals, which emerged late in LaFortune's yearlong ``visioning'' process, are one reason why leaders organized the ballot that way. If approved, the money only goes to the companies if they do what the incentives are trying to get them to.

But Dick and the mayor both said that what they heard in the public forums, Internet conferences and large summits during the ``visioning'' process was that the people want choices.

``We took the stance that we want to give the voters the freedom of choice,'' LaFortune said. ``That's been successful in other campaigns. The message is that all four are important to the future and all four need to pass.''

In 1997 and 2000, Tulsa voters rejected economic development proposals supported by former Mayor Susan Savage. Those projects, 1/2-cent sales tax increases in the $200 million range for downtown attractions, were presented on ballots as one big package.

Dick and LaFortune say they aren't trying to avoid giving voters sticker shock by putting the $885 million figure on the ballot.

``The voters can add up the numbers,'' Dick said. ``This is a big package. The bottom line is a big number.''

Since educating voters about one ballot issue is hard enough, four separate questions will likely be even tougher, experts say. That's why a unanimous front in support of the plans will be critical, Darcy said.

``There's got to be a lot of support across the board for all four of these items,'' Darcy said. ``There cannot be any complicated messages like 'Vote for three of them, but not for one of them.'''

LaFortune said selling the four individual projects will be the same as selling one question. It won't require any additional television advertisements or a more intense public awareness campaign, he said.

``Even if you have all in one vote, you've got to educate the public on all the projects,'' the mayor said.

Leaders will lay out how they plan to sell the projects at a news conference Monday, the same day the Tulsa County Commission will vote on holding a special election for the plan Sept. 9.

But Dick said Thursday that leaders will push voters to vote ``yes'' on each question.

A special election, usually attended only by civic-minded citizens who vote when they're asked to and zealots who adamantly support or oppose an issue, will help the plan, Darcy said.

``The only people who will come out are people who care about this,'' Darcy said. ``That should favor passage ... If this is stuck at end of a general election ballot, then a whole bunch of people who don't know anything about it will come and vote against it.''