Collins College of Business alumni lead efforts to revitalize Tulsa’s cores
What’s old is new again in Tulsa.
Across the city’s center, in downtown and throughout surrounding areas like Kendall Whittier and the Pearl District, developers have breathed new life into historic properties.
Entrepreneurs transform forgotten storefronts into the latest buzz-worthy space, injecting a new energy into a town with a history as rich as its founding oil barons.
Though Tulsa’s suburbs continue to expand and attract new residents, urban living holds a newfound appeal for populations ranging from young professionals to empty nesters. Cranes, scaffolding and workers in safety vests and hardhats are familiar sights inside the grid that comprises downtown’s boundaries. The New York Times even highlighted downtown Tulsa’s “reawakening” in a November 2014 article.
Tulsa, it seems, is returning to its roots.
Downtown Tulsa reclaims its former glory
To understand the rebirth of Tulsa’s downtown, it’s helpful to have a sense of how it lost its allure in the first place.
Between 1828 and 1836, the Lockapoka Creek Indians established a new home at the Council Oak Tree located near 18th and Cheyenne. In 1848, Lewis Perryman opened a cattle ranch and the first trading post nearby, laying the groundwork for the city that would come to be known as Tulsa. The early 1900s ushered in an oil boom, followed by construction of many of Tulsa’s historic buildings. The 1950s and ’60s brought suburban sprawl to the city, driving residents and new businesses to the south and east. Major corporations and firms maintained a presence downtown, but the close of the workday brought a veritable mass exodus as workers retreated to more desirable locations.
In 2004, downtown Tulsa’s tide began to turn. A young entrepreneur named Elliot Nelson bought an abandoned warehouse and opened James E. McNellie’s Public House at 1st and Elgin — a risky move for an area that didn’t see much activity after 5 p.m. on weekdays. But it paid off, and visionaries like Eric Marshall (BSIBL ’04) took note.
As an international business major at TU, Marshall had the opportunity to study abroad in Germany, where he fell in love with the culture of beer brewing. He returned to Tulsa for his senior year, just as the budding craft beer industry began gaining traction on both coasts. “There was a great beer culture growing everywhere, but not in Tulsa,” Marshall said.
He points to German culture as an example of how communities were built around each craft. “You had your butcher, baker, brewer — key businesses that shaped the vibe and culture of the cities and towns. In Germany, there are breweries that have been around for hundreds of years and have been part of the culture that whole time. That’s what people here want. Not just beer, but a core of the community.”
Inspired by Nelson’s leap of faith, Marshall took his own and founded Marshall Brewing Company in 2008. In a brewery located just on the outskirts of downtown in the Kendall Whittier district, Marshall produces full-strength, handcrafted ales and lagers using Old World brewing methods he studied during a series of apprenticeships in Germany.
As it turns out, Marshall’s timing couldn’t have been better. Other entrepreneurs and city leaders began to see what he and Nelson did: opportunity. Tulsa’s Vision 2025 initiative, which provided a penny, 13-year increase in county sales tax to be used for economic development and other capital improvements, also marked a significant milestone in downtown’s revitalization. The 19,199-seat BOK Center opened in the fall of 2008 followed by ONEOK Field in the spring of 2010. With a world-class entertainment arena and a new minor league baseball stadium anchoring downtown from the east and west, developers moved quickly to purchase the limited real estate in between.
Tulsa-based development, engineering and construction firm, Ross Group, headed by Warren Ross (MBA ’02), adapted its business model to take on more local projects. Ross Group now has a half dozen underway in the downtown area, with additional development on the horizon.
Ross grew up around the construction business; his father founded J. Ross Acoustics and Drywall in 1979. He left Tulsa to study mechanical engineering at MIT and returned the summer between his junior and senior year to intern with his father, who soon after advised Ross that he was looking at an exit strategy from the business. “Being home that summer, I realized I enjoyed working with my dad and working in the industry,” said Ross. “I focused on graduating and came back to run things, with a focus on injecting new energy into the business.”
When Ross joined the company (now known as Ross Group) in 1996, it was primarily a subcontractor in the Tulsa market. He and his sister discovered a program that would allow the company to work with the federal government. “We started marketing to federal clients throughout Oklahoma and into Texas and other areas,” he said.
With little competition, Ross Group found a successful business model in the federal contracting arena.
But by 2012, that growth began to slow, and Ross sought to leverage a core competency his company had honed through its work on federal projects: historical restorations.
“We’ve restored military buildings from as old as the 1860s. In some of those, we’ve had to rebuild the entire structure while preserving the original look. We know the paperwork and the regulations that go along with historical restoration.”
With vacant properties available in their own backyard and changes occurring in the local construction market, Ross Group seized the opportunity to take a more active role in its local community.
In downtown alone, Ross Group is completing a historical restoration of the International Harvester building at 2nd Street and Frankfort. Once home to an agricultural equipment dealership, the 37,000-square-foot building will serve as Ross Group’s headquarters when renovations conclude in late 2015. The three-story Coliseum Apartments at 7th Street and Elgin — another historical restoration project — will house 36 studio apartments. Ross Group also is leading renovations of the Gates Hardware Building at 2nd and Elgin. KSQ Architects will occupy the top floor of the 28,000-square-foot property, with a brewpub headed up by Nelson (which Marshall is also involved in) and another entertainment venue slated for the ground floor.
Ross says his passion for restoring buildings to their former glory started under his father’s mentorship. Along with historical tax credits as incentives, the inherent challenge in taking on restoration projects also makes the work less of a commodity compared to easier-to-build “square box projects.”
And if the investment in existing property isn’t enough of a sign that downtown is deep into a renaissance, he also notes that Ross Group, in partnership with Promise Hotels, will break ground on three new downtown properties in the coming year: A Hampton Inn at 3rd and Cheyenne, Holiday Inn Express across from ONEOK Field and a Hilton Garden Inn at 2nd and Cheyenne.
Preserving Main Street
Kendall Whittier shares a similar history to that of downtown. The area, which sits just west of TU’s campus, emerged in 1909 when a trolley line maintained a route that traveled from east of downtown to 1st Street, south on Lewis Ave. to 7th Street and east again to end at Kendall College (now known as The University of Tulsa). A neighborhood rose along the trolley line, in addition to Kendall and Whittier elementary schools. Next came a library, then a corner grocery store.
In 1926, the Federal Highway Commission, chaired by Cyrus Avery, authorized construction of a new highway: The famed Route 66, which crossed through the intersection at Admiral and Lewis. Kendall Whittier experienced a second wave of development as more than 100 businesses were established in proximity to the Mother Road, including the first bakery in Tulsa to sell sliced bread.
But highway construction, once a boon for the burgeoning community, would ultimately usher in its decline during the 1960s. The city cleared land to make way for Interstate 244, essentially cutting the neighborhood in half. Many businesses vacated, replaced with unsavory disreputable or seedy establishments. The area experienced a free-fall that lasted for the next two decades. A neighborhood formerly noted for its sense of community was now home to dive bars, drugs and one of the highest concentrations of crime in Tulsa.
The City of Tulsa intervened in the 1990s and developed a master plan for the neighborhood that included streetscaping, a new library and post office and consolidation of the two elementary schools, among other improvements. This forward momentum prompted area merchants to found Kendall Whittier Main Street (KWMS) in 2010, a partner in the Oklahoma Department of Commerce’s Main Street Program.
This initiative encourages communities to combine historic preservation and downtown revitalization efforts with financial investments to restore once vibrant areas.
KWMS made another strategic move in 2013 when the board hired Ed Sharrer (BSBA ’92) as its executive director. A passionate advocate for Tulsa and historic preservation, Sharrer, whose previous experience includes web design for TU and city planning for the City of Tulsa, has proved invaluable for the community.
“After I started in January 2013, I realized that everything I had done in my professional life since the day that I left TU as a student had led me to this point,” Sharrer explained. “This job is an interesting mix of city planning, real estate development, historic preservation, marketing, promotion, events management and everything in between.”
Since Sharrer arrived, 18 new businesses have opened, representing 120 new jobs and $11.5 million in private investment. He maintains that he can’t take credit for all the success; it’s a product of several factors brought together by timing and circumstance.
Ziegler Art & Frame has sustained its presence in Kendall Whittier for more than 40 years — even during the neighborhood’s sharp decline. Clark Wiens (BS ’63) purchased the historic Circle Cinema in 2002 after it sat in disrepair for years. It’s now the only movie theater built prior to World War II still in operation in Tulsa.
“Finally, downtown Tulsa has come alive since the mid-2000s thanks to public and private investments,” says Sharrer. “Subsequently, rents in downtown have risen to prices comparable to those of similar midsize cosmopolitan cities. If you’re part of the creative class of professionals — artist, photographer or writer — this is where you want to be if you can’t afford downtown. Between building stock that was available and underutilized, our involvement in promoting the area and outside investment, the revitalization of Kendall Whittier all came together.”
TU’s True Blue Neighbors program, inspired by President Steadman Upham, was established in 2009 to engage students in the responsibility of citizenship and service. The program provides an opportunity not only for students, but also faculty and staff to volunteer and help improve the quality of life in the Kendall Whittier neighborhood and surrounding areas of Tulsa.
In partnership with state and local agencies, the George Kaiser Family Foundation funded Tulsa Educare, a nationally recognized early childhood education center founded to help break the cycle of poverty inherent in the Kendall Whittier area. The foundation also invested $36 million in the West Park Apartments, a residence complex that offers a mix of 128 market rate and income adjusted units, all of which are full (with a waiting list of more than 500).
“Those initial investments paid off, and people saw it,” says Sharrer. “This neighborhood is on the rise in a way that’s happening organically and is sustainable over time.”
He explains that when he and the board evaluate potential businesses, they give careful thought to creating a mix of commerce that will not only serve residents, but also attract visitors from other parts of the city.
That’s why you won’t find chain eateries or big box retailers in Kendall Whittier. Instead, the historic main street district welcomes businesses like Pancho Anaya Bakery, which originated in Mexico and has been handcrafting authentic pastries for five generations and just celebrated its second anniversary; or Hoot Owl Coffee Company, a more recent addition to the neighborhood. The micro roaster, in operation since 2010, began searching last year for the perfect location to house its first brick-and-mortar operation. Sharrer knew just the place. Hoot Owl now occupies a prominent corner storefront at 1 North Lewis Avenue; a historic space that had boarded- over windows for years before its new owners completely restored the loft-style interior, which features a roastery on one side and a coffee shop on the other.
Sharrer says the district expects between eight and 12 new businesses to open in the next year, several of which already are in the works. Ross Group is completing a redevelopment project on the former Swinney Hardware building, which will help bolster the sustained revitalization of this unique neighborhood. The historic building renovation, in what used to house Tulsa’s longest-running independent hardware store, will provide flexible commercial spaces to accommodate restaurant, retail, or office tenants.
Comparing his current role to his experience as a city planner, Sharrer smiles as he remarks, “I’ve traded in the red tape for cutting red ribbons.”
Building Tulsa’s future
While national recognition for the city’s revitalization efforts is nice, perhaps the most important benefit lies in retaining the very group that saw so much potential for the area in the first place — young professionals.
“For the longest time, we had a brain drain in this city. We lost talented young people who chose to move to Chicago, Dallas, New York or other cities after graduation. It’s hard seeing those talents go elsewhere when they should stay here,” Marshall said.
From an economic perspective, Sharrer explains that cities attractive to Millennials (those born roughly between the early 1980s and early 2000s) will thrive in the coming years. “Companies will have no choice but to relocate where their employees want to live,” he says. “Millennials locate first, then find a job. If there’s not one, they’ll make one. If we don’t create places attractive to this generation, we won’t have the workforce we need to sustain growth after the Baby Boomers retire.”
The good news for Tulsa
TU’s Business Career Center surveyed undergraduate and graduate business students in early 2015 to find out where students wanted to work after graduation. Tulsa topped that list, ranked above Dallas, Houston, Chicago and San Francisco, indicating that improvements over the past decade are making a difference.
Emily Reh (BSBA ’09, MEB ’14), chair of TU’s Young Alumni committee on the Tulsa Chapter Board of Directors and CNG specialist in the business development department at Tulsa-based ONE Gas, agrees. Reh works and spends much of her leisure time in the heart of Tulsa. She and her husband, Jeff (BA ’08), live in a midtown neighborhood they chose because of its proximity to downtown’s dining and entertainment options. She notes that, “Investing in downtown is a great opportunity to retain young professionals. That’s what we need in order to continue making Tulsa a fun place to live, work and raise a family.”