Awesome Towns for Entrepreneurs: A Spotlight on Tulsa, OK
Though residents were still likely to have been gracious, hospitable, and welcoming, early summer 2019 might not have been the best time to visit Tulsa, Oklahoma.
That’s because the state’s second largest city was still mopping up from the devastating flooding of the Arkansas River that took place over Memorial Day Weekend. As soon as floodwaters began to recede, city leaders began reassuring residents that things were going to be OK—no pun intended. While it’s hard to predict future flooding, some officials already began using the natural disaster as a potential opportunity to make things better, including pushing harder to replace aging levies and fast-track stalled infrastructure improvement projects.
The Tulsa World newspaper even evoked a need for “Keystone Spirit”—a general term for the collective Oklahoma initiative, know-how, and elbow grease that gets things done—to have a role in making sure preparations are in place to prevent future disasters and allow the community to continue thriving.
It’s this same spirit that is also credited with helping Tulsa and Tulsans continually adapt and improve, whether it’s becoming ground zero for the country’s oil boom in the early 20th century; the push to diversify the economy when fossil fuel prices started tanking in the 1980s; or the successful 21st-century blending of a revived natural resource industry with other lucrative financial sectors.
Today, the Tulsa area is considered to be strong economically as well as culturally. It houses the national headquarters for the Williams Company and the QuikTrip convenience store chain and is the home of the largest maintenance facility for American Airlines—the city’s largest employer. In 2018, Amazon announced plans to build a massive fulfillment center in the area that will add 1,500 new jobs.
Tulsa boasts several minor- and major-league sports teams, plus an opera company and a symphony. It’s known for a large collection of Art Deco buildings and even has a Deco District featuring a home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. There’s a zoo, an aquarium, multiple art museums, a giant statue of a blue whale along Route 66, and the world’s largest praying hands.
Outside of the downtown core and suburbs, the surrounding Green Country is a blend of oil refineries, manufacturing companies, recreation trails and wildlife refuges. Bloomberg’s Business Week ranked Tulsa as the 38th-best place to live in 2013, and it was a recent finalist for a national Engaged Cities Award. Livability ranked it as number 66 out of the Top 1,000 Places to Live Anywhere in the World.
Much of the current economic gains in Tulsa are credited to Vision 2025, a county-wide one-cent sales tax increase approved in 2003 that has helped fund various capital projects along with offering various tax incentives and funding packages to attract employers. Each year since approval, this financing option has paid for everything from community swimming pools to the Bok Center and Tulsa Regional Convention Center.
Economic leaders are now looking beyond 2025 to future civic needs, including whether to extend the tax or come up with other creative solutions. In the meantime, it’s a good opportunity for businesses to invest in the community. Continue reading to learn why.
Fast Facts: Why Tulsa, OK?
Eat well. The area is a blend of cultures, from Native American influences to the American South. This is seen in its artwork and even its food. Today, diners will find everything from barbecue to pizza to Lebanese dishes. Many people are surprised to find authentic and official Coney Island Hot Dogs there. In the 1920s, Coney Island Hot Dog founder Christ Economou left New York and began opening hot dog restaurants around the country. After opening one in Tulsa, he decided he liked the area so much, he stayed put. Today the Tulsa location is still operating, and diners can get a traditional Coney Island hot dog or have chili added to it.
Think Green. Green space is vital and Tulsa boasts more than 130 parks. Its newest addition, The Gathering Place, offers 66 acres of space for everything from a performance area to a playground, to a skate park, garden and pond. The park took several years to design and included public input plus more than $465 million in private support. It was voted as the country’s favorite civic attraction by USA Today readers in 2018.
City of Nicknames. Among the myriad titles bestowed on “T-Town” over the years including “The Paris of Oklahoma” and “The Buckle of the Bible Belt,” Tulsa seems especially proud of being called “The Oil Capital of the World,” “The Birthplace of Western Swing,” and “The Birthplace of the Mother Road.” (City officials, including Cyrus Avery, had a strong role in connecting Midwest communities to the first interstate road.)
Businesses to Watch in Tulsa, OK
Marshall Brewing Company
The area’s first production craft brewery opened in 2008 and offers beer enthusiasts a variety of high-quality ales and lagers. Although the location has become a popular brewpub and social area for the Tulsa community, the brewery keeps moving forward in its goal of being the best in the state and eventually, the country. It also has had a commendable role in bringing full-strength beer back; until the mid-1990s, the only post-Prohibition legal beer available was low-strength brews from national brands.
- The owner: Eric Marshall, founder/brewmaster
- The story: After the first round of well-intentioned local craft breweries started and then shut down in the mid-1990s, Eric Marshall decided to keep the craft beer dream alive by focusing not only on good beer, but on a strong business plan. Not only did the fourth-generation Tulsan study international business and German but he spent several years in Germany working at breweries. This provided him with financing know-how plus proven Old World methods to create and distribute wonderful beer with quality ingredients and sustainable processes. He also brought in the expertise of family members as well as friends with hospitality backgrounds.
With the exception of local law enforcement and public safety officials concerned about the presence of drones during rescue efforts and emergencies, most everyone else thinks that unmanned aircraft has the potential for everything from easy agricultural surveys to movie-making. Drone enthusiasts in Oklahoma and Kansas have even teamed up recently with government agencies like the Small Business Administration to create the UAS Cluster Initiative. The project has the goal of establishing and growing drone-related companies, sharing technology and making it easier to access national and global markets.
- The owner: Dale Parish, owner/chief pilot
- The story: The Tulsa resident began Hover Visions in 2013 after retiring from fire services after 30 years. He’s also a licensed manned aircraft pilot in single- and multi-engine planes with more than 600 flight hours. His experience with manned aircraft made it easier to learn unmanned skills, and today he travels the country working with corporate clients on everything from inspection services to video and still film footage to emergency responses.
Although it’s easy enough to think of energy companies only as massive multi-national organizations, Oliphant Energy is a good example of doing well at a local level. The privately-held oil and gas company is based in Tulsa and involved in investments throughout Oklahoma and Texas, including exploration projects in the Permian and Anadarko basins.
- The owners: Don Burdick, founder/CEO; Bill Martin, COO/president
- The story: Burdick, originally a geologist, was the former CEO of Panther Energy II, which was sold in 2017. Then, Martin, the former VP of reservoir engineering at Panther, and a dozen other friends, former employees, and professional colleagues decided to strike out and create their own resource exploration and investment company. Their small, more agile size allowed them to move faster than their previous employer and within four months they had secured equity funding, purchased acreage and equipment and began drilling their first well.
If you’ve ever needed something in a hurry, you might want to consider being part of Trivyol. While the high-tech company doesn’t produce or deliver actual products like Amazon, it does allow members to put out a call throughout its global community to request information or photos from a certain geographic area through a mobile app. If you’re also a member and the request is something you know or pertains to a location near you, you can take the task and make some money off of your effort.
- The owners: Asad Molayari and Tilan Ukwatta, co-founders
- The story: Asad is a data scientist and engineer, and Tilan is an astrophysicist and senior data scientist. Both are passionate about the power of the Internet to acquire incredible amounts of data. More than 1,000 users signed up around the world in the first month, and they hope to have 10,000 by the end of 2019. The company’s world headquarters are in Tulsa.
Tulsa-area officials cheered in April at the ribbon-cutting for a new manufacturing facility for MST Manufacturing, a precision CNC machining and fabrication shop. The company officially opened its doors in 2016 in Claremore and focuses on making parts for the automotive and aviation industry as well as for the medical and petroleum industries The company is now located in the former National Oilwell Varco location that includes three buildings for a total of 52,000 square feet and 100 employees.
- Owners: Kenneth Stratton, president/CEO
- The story: Stratton and his father formed The Stratton Group 25 years ago and began fabricating materials for aerospace clients worldwide. The company later became M&M Manufacturing and was sold in 2016. However, Stratton is still interested in this line of work and believes there’s still a demand for precision machining. It’s important to him that the company is based where he grew up.
Resources for Aspiring Entrepreneurs in Tulsa, OK
- Urban Data Pioneers – The City of Tulsa wanted to engage the community and use its resources better but didn’t know where to start. Although it had access to plenty of raw data about crime statistics, traffic information, population changes and property values, it was difficult to bring it all together into something that was useful and made sense. So in 2018, the Mayor’s Performance Strategy and Innovation team created the UDP, brought in employees from different departments, and partnered them with data experts to begin synthesizing information and using it to address current and future needs at small and large levels. Today, more than 120 data scientists are still interested in collaborating with citizens, nonprofits and other communities.
- Tulsa Foundation for Architecture – In the 1990s, the voices suggesting to stimulate growth downtown by bringing in more visitors were growing louder. Some proposed demolishing older, unused, unsightly buildings to make room for retail space, restaurants and parking lots. Others felt this strategy was short-sighted, and suggested that more effort should be placed on restoring and preserving past structures while still promoting commerce. The latter opinion ultimately prevailed, and a group came together to gather more information about the buildings themselves, including blueprints. The new foundation also met with city officials to discuss ways to encourage growth and investment in historic buildings as part of larger urban renewal efforts. It also advocates for smart growth in the future.
- Greater Tulsa Area Chambers of Commerce – Although 25 communities in the Tulsa area maintain their own separate chambers of commerce, membership is also encouraged in the “Greater” organization that works to promote the whole region as one big economic powerhouse. Calling itself “Your Partner in Prosperity,” the organization focuses on business networking, building relationships with lawmakers and elected officials, and boosting tourism. It offers members a variety of regular social activities plus useful business development seminars, and works with related organizations such as the Convention and Visitor Bureau and Tulsa Sports Commission.
- The Forge – This business incubator began in 2009 and focuses on helping participants create and grow their businesses. Participants are assigned shared space in the downtown Déco District and are encouraged to meet regularly with each other to exchange ideas and suggestions. At least once a month, they’re partnered with mentors in the community in similar established professions or industries. This creates a good blend of creative new ideas for startups with people who can give them realistic information about what it takes to do business here, including where to go to get certain products or services. Participants can also meet regularly with certified business coaches who will share their perspectives plus the official The Forge curriculum.
- Mosaic – When trying to sell companies or employees on what makes Tulsa great in order to convince them to relocate, it’s easy to point out the cool cultural offerings, entertainment, and recreation options. These days, there also people eager to point out that Oklahoma, especially Tulsa, is proud to welcome everyone of every background, race, faith, gender, culture and orientation. The role of Mosaic is to encourage and celebrate diversity in the workplace. This includes inviting company officials to look for ways to hire individuals of diverse populations and look for suppliers that promote cultural diversity and develop inclusive policies. Mosaic also offers a variety of seminars and social events to help people think differently about how they hire and how bringing in new perspectives and cultures is of value to everyone.
Joe Butler Writer
Joe Butler is an accomplished writer and editor in the Northwest with more than 20 years of experience publishing in newspapers, magazines, and specialty websites. He graduated from Central Washington University with a degree in mass communications and has worked with a variety of clients nationwide. Joe lives near Spokane, WA, where he writes, reads, and collects spoons as well as the cheapest, plastic snow-globes he can find.
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