When Economic Development Only Benefits Some: Tulsa’s Struggle with Inequitable Economic Opportunity

by Staff Writer Lindsay Myers

We often celebrate when large businesses and corporations are willing to establish roots in Tulsa. Of course, the benefits should not be overlooked because more business generates revenue for our local economy and creates job opportunities. Such an opportunity is why our city fought hard for an Amazon fulfillment center last year and, most recently, why we attempted to woo Elon Musk into housing his latest Tesla project here. However, it is time to think critically about the implications of this sort of economic development. While these things may be an overall positive for Tulsa, they impact certain demographic areas in different ways, emphasizing inequities between communities.

In the past few years, Tulsa has focused more energy on the Greenwood District. The upcoming centennial of the 1921 Race Massacre has drawn nationwide attention to local historical atrocities but Tulsa’s recognition of Greenwood’s historical significance lacks true restitution. Recent city development uses the Greenwood name as a prop to expand the downtown metro area but ignores North Tulsa as a whole. WPX Energy, an oil and gas company, is “developing a new home in historic Greenwood.” The company references Greenwood’s history throughout its design plan, with its front door facing Reconciliation Park and boasts of connecting Greenwood to the Arts District. This design plan would be nicely paired with a recruitment strategy that focuses on employing Greenwood residents but such a plan does not exist. The Vast Bank Building is a similar story, touting proximity to the Drillers Stadium and housing businesses like In the Raw and Topeca Coffee. New construction that does not actively seek reparations on historic Greenwood land is erasure. When it comes to the Greenwood neighborhood north of the highway, Tulsa again prioritizes white companies, white growth and white feelings over Black resilience, Black history and Black businesses. 

The fight for economic development in North Tulsa echoes these trends. City Councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper worked her entire term for a single grocery store in her district. Meanwhile, Bricktown and South Tulsa most recently gained a Trader Joe’s and a CostCo to join their Reasor’s, Aldi, Sam’s, Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market, Sprouts, Whole Foods and Natural Grocers stores. TYPros easily petitioned for a Trader Joe’s on Brookside while North Tulsa had to fight for basic necessities. The city’s complicated relationship with North Tulsa goes beyond new businesses. The city also encourages North Tulsans to compete for good jobs, while pushing them toward low-paying jobs where they will receive unfair treatment. Tulsa Community WorkAdvance launched a new program in 2019 specifically geared toward equipping North Tulsans with the job skills to become more competitive in the workforce. The press conference emphasized that these workforce-ready community members would be accessible to employers in North Tulsa specifically. Free access to this program is expected to decrease unemployment and poverty in the community. It will be interesting to see if large employers like WPX Energy and Vast Bank recruit directly from the Due North pool or if their association with Greenwood is in name only. Such job opportunities with a living wage are the bare minimum. When Tulsa welcomed the Amazon fulfillment center with open arms, there were no conversations about the ethical treatment of the workforce. There are countless stories of the poor treatment Amazon warehouse employees have experienced. The warmth that the city holds toward Amazon could be a possible sign that it views lower-income Tulsans who will be filling these jobs as disposable and merely robots to generate money for the economy. Similarly, the state as a whole pushed for Tesla to build its Cybertruck plant in Tulsa. While the factory would certainly mean more jobs for Tulsans and more money for the local economy, it would threaten the livelihood of the thousands of Tulsans working these jobs. 

Economic development in Tulsa tends to only benefit the communities north of I-244 but it doesn’t have to be that way. Jobs with good working conditions and a living wage throughout Tulsa will improve the quality of life of our citizens. When businesses turn their public-facing love for racial reconciliation into true, action-oriented equity, Tulsa will thrive. It is time that we think critically about new employers beyond the dollars they will bring and ensure that they will fit our citizens’ needs.

Photo credit: Joseph Rushmore

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