It’s refreshing to see Oklahoma’s leading cities ranked favorably on national comparisons instead of those criticizing waistlines and other pejorative pronouncements. In recent years, there has been an optimistic mosaic of upbeat titles for both Tulsa and Oklahoma City. Rankings include Most Livable City, Best Place to Live and Relocate; high marks for Young Entrepreneurs, Shortest Commute and Young People Getting a Job. These accolades are from entities like Kiplinger’s, Forbes, the U.S. Census, Fiscal Times, Relocate America: Apartment Guide and more.
But what do these rankings mean in terms of Oklahoma City and Tulsa making the region more attractive for start-up businesses and expanding existing businesses? Are municipalities and chambers of commerce utilizing these brag-worthy aspects to deepen pocketbooks and make our shiny state shinier?
Leaders seem to take these rankings to heart. Oklahoma City might not have landed on the 2013 Most Livable Cities List in Outside magazine if not for the shame stimulus of being voted one of 2009’s Fattest Cities in Men’s Fitness magazine’s rankings. Since then, Oklahoma City responded with youth fitness programs, a 70-mile-and-growing trail system and a greatly enlarged farmer’s market.
Such proactive measures are many and growing. Mike Neal, president and CEO of the Tulsa Regional Chamber, says Tulsa’s incredibly low cost of doing business led to ranking No. 1 for unemployment insurance rates and No. 7 in corporate taxes by Site Selection Group in 2015. When asked why Oklahoma’s positive exposure is increasing, Neal attributes it to great things in Tulsa which are increasingly starting and growing.
“With over $1 billion invested in downtown Tulsa over the past eight years – and numerous large projects on the horizon – the creation of public spaces like the Guthrie Green in the Brady District; and construction underway on Tulsa’s new 60-acre public park, A Gathering Place for Tulsa, our region is gaining exposure in its ability to attract and retain the young talent that will be vital to business success in the future,” says Neal.
He also mentions Tulsa’s increased collaboration among community leaders and organizations in building a cohesive entrepreneurial landscape and continued public/private partnerships propelling big ideas.
One such “big idea” is the 36 Degrees North work space, a sort of boot camp for entrepreneurs that was recently praised by President Barack Obama. The soon-to-open, 12,000-square-foot space will feature private offices to rent, classrooms and shared workspaces in Tulsa, says Dustin Curzon, executive director of the organization. The idea is to make it easier for business owners to split space, pool ideas and share childcare resources. The project is a public/private partnership.
Tulsa’s appeal is also enhanced by what Neal describes as “a skilled existing workforce and a cooperative system of education entities – from K-12 to career tech to higher education – that are aligned in a mission to ensure business and industry have the skilled talent they need for success both now and in the future.”
Roy Williams, president and CEO of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, is thrilled with the praises Oklahoma City has earned, especially those centered on workforce quality.
“Success in economic development today is centered on talent – talent already in your region and the ability to attract and retain talent in your region,” says Williams. “Today’s talent wants to work, play and learn wherever it is they choose to live. So these type of accolades are important to talent. National rankings help us significantly when we are talking to soon-to-be-graduated college students, as well as when we are talking to employee prospects of existing companies. We have garnered national attention as being one of the best cities to find a job, as well as one of the best cities for millennials. Kiplinger also ranked Oklahoma City the No. 1 place to start a business in 2015. Since we have ranked very positive nationally it tends to be a surprise to our audience and a real asset we can expose.”
The Oklahoma City Chamber continues to use national rankings to promote Oklahoma worldwide, such as in an early 2015 World Service Business segment on the British Broadcast Corporation to depict the Oklahoma brand as one of diversity and strength with a low cost of living and doing business, and a multitude of recreational, cultural, arts, education and living opportunities, “and the openness and welcoming spirit of our people,” says Williams.
When Dan Maloney left New York City a few years ago to move Tailwind, his visual marketing software platform business, to headquarter in Oklahoma City, he knew of some of the obvious perks. But there have also been many intangible but key factors which have caused his business to thrive and swell to its current roster of 20 employees serving 50,000 brands worldwide.
“In the early days, it was very helpful to be located in Oklahoma City because [cost of living] is just so much more affordable,” says Maloney. “And we were able to start hiring faster because it is less expensive to get great quality employees here on a reasonable salary. We’ve also been helped a lot by the Chamber because being a member introduced us locally and really helped us to feel at home and build a local network. It is really these intangible benefits such as openness to networking and business people actually helping each other that gave us a really big boost early on, and it felt like home here in a matter of months instead of years.”
Williams says Oklahoma is the original home of the start-up.
“We have been a place for start-ups since the Land Run of 1889,” says Williams. “All of our major corporate headquarters were local start-ups – like Devon, Chesapeake, Sandridge, Love’s, Sonic, Hobby Lobby, Express Employment and American Fidelity. Unlike many places, it is very easy to start a business here. Permits, licensing, regulatory environment and access to capital – all are conducive to starting a new business. There are also several organizations to help support entrepreneurs including OCAST, i2E, Oklahoma Small Business Development Centers and 1 Million Cups.”
Neal, Williams and other city and state leaders say it is no accident that the perception of Oklahoma is becoming more positive all the time.
“For the last two decades, Oklahoma City has spent significant dollars to build tremendous infrastructure facilities and leveraging those facilities for private investment,” says Williams. “As a result we have diversified our economy, grown our economic strength and maintained a low cost of living. As well, we are a community based on start-up companies and that momentum is now multiplying. The trends we have developed have become the envy of communities across the nation – all leading to the numerous positive rankings. Oklahoma City is also one of the few markets in the country that weathered the recent recession well, leading the nation in low unemployment for several years. Even with the recent decrease in oil prices, Oklahoma City’s unemployment rate is well under the national average.”