The Public Park will be a place where the community can gather to play, picnic, enjoy concerts, exercise and attend festivals. It is envisioned to entice the community to spend time outdoors, encourage a healthier lifestyle and improve the quality of life.

The opening paragraph does not refer to Tulsa’s Gathering Place, currently under development along Riverside Drive. It is paraphrased from the MAPS 3 section of

Illustrating how enlightened cities intent on remaining competitive value well designed open public spaces; Oklahoma City voters approved the third round of their MAPS program in December of 2009. Among the projects included in the $777 million initiative to further enhance their quality of life and revitalize their economy is a new 70 acre, $132 million urban park.

To put things in perspective, Oklahoma City’s new park, which citizens have agreed to tax themselves to pay for, will pale in comparison to the $200 million+ dollar Gathering Place. If our friends at the other end of the turnpike are ready to step up and pay for such a prized amenity, all the more reason for Tulsans to celebrate the improbable, no strings attached gift of the George Kaiser Family Foundation and their partners.

That said we must guard against complacency and the somewhat natural tendency to under value, under appreciate, and take for granted unearned rewards and free gifts. We can effectively do so by honorably partnering with our benefactors to maximize the value of their gifts; for ourselves and for the benefit of the entire community.

As detailed in a previous column here, that can be accomplished by major public investments in creating a signature parkway along Riverside Drive, the gateway to the park, and by ensuring one of the most important elements to the new park’s success; keeping water in the river.

The existing Zink Dam has served us well but it’s essentially worn out and undersized to accommodate the desired boating and recreational activities that would help take better advantage of this wonderful natural resource. A new and improved Zink Lake low water dam is urgently needed.

All previous attempts to fund major infrastructure improvements along the river have failed including three separate low water dam proposals. The first, in 1969, was the River Lakes Park proposal which called for the creation of three lakes stretching from Sand Springs to Jenks. Beginning a trend that has yet to be reversed, voters rejected the proposal which was attached to a $60 million bond issue.

It’s reflective of a culture that expresses popular support for river development in opinion polls but can’t muster the intestinal fortitude to pay for it when the funding comes up for a vote.

Unlike those in our sister city 100 miles down the road; we have been waiting for someone else to pay for our river development. Sadly, our unwillingness to accept this responsibility is likely related to the good fortune we have enjoyed since the very early days of Tulsa.

The extraordinary philanthropic generosity of a legion of civic minded donors over many years has spoiled us into thinking we don’t need to invest in ourselves, because someone else will do it for us. While there has historically been a success with public/private partnerships, like the creation of the River Parks Authority for instance; it increasingly seems that voters have not been holding up their end of the bargain.

Case in point: In 2007 Tulsans were offered $117 million in private donations and matching funds if they approved a seven-year $154.85 million sales-tax initiative to implement parts of the Arkansas River Master Plan. The Public funds would have paid for the construction of low-water dams in Sand Springs and south Tulsa and modifications to Zink Dam; land acquisition and site development; pedestrian bridges and a contingency fund.

The private donations would have funded enhancements and gathering spots along the river. When the proposal was rejected at the polls, the offer for private donations was withdrawn and Tulsans once again missed an opportunity for significant Arkansas River development.

At that point, Tulsans turned to the State and Federal government for help in financing the dams. In spite of the sustained efforts of Sen. Jim Inhofe who has worked tirelessly with the Corps of Engineers and Congress to get funding for the river projects, no money has yet been made available. We have also looked to the state Legislature who approved a bond issue that was successfully challenged last year and the state Supreme Court shelved the plan.

In spite of the fact that the City of Tulsa has to date been unwilling to put more skin in the game, our potential partners have not completely abandoned us. Jenks and the Muscogee (Creek) Nation have agreed in principal to come up with $30 million or half of the cost needed to construct the south Tulsa/Jenks dam.

The prospects for state bond money and 2007 federal Water Resources Development Act funds, while stalled at the moment, are not entirely dead. And the best news of all of course, thanks to the incredible generosity of the George Kaiser Family Foundation and their partners, Tulsa will inherit a world class park that will forever transform the banks of the Arkansas River and undoubtedly lead to unprecedented further development.

Let’s be clear about this. George Kaiser is not asking for anything in return for the largest municipal gift in the city’s history. It would be wrong however to conclude that he would not like to see taxpayers become significant stakeholders in a project that will benefit our community for generations to come. After all, it’s only natural to want to help those who help themselves.

Who knows when the next opportunity will come to invest in this long sought after dream; water in the river. When it does, let’s hope that after 60 years of idle talk, Tulsans are finally ready to answer the call. That day will truly be historic!

Published in Urban Tulsa Weekly – July 25, 2013

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