Tulsa’s new economic development director Kathy Taylor has always been a woman with a wish list – pouring her heart into education or holding a newfound vision for cultivating entrepreneurship.
She’s seen economic development from all the angles – as mayor of Tulsa from 2006 to 2009; as Oklahoma’s secretary of commerce from 2003 to 2006; as the founder of a foundation that promotes economic development and entrepreneurship; as a lifelong proponent of education, no matter the role.
A few days after G.T. Bynum was elected mayor of Tulsa in the summer, her wish list and his wish list met up. “I told him I’d help him,” says Taylor, who recently has led ImpactTulsa, a collaborative education initiative. “I believe in giving back.”
On the spur of the moment, Bynum floated the idea that Taylor might become his economic development director. She, a former mayor working for the new mayor. She one political party, he another.
“It would be kind of awkward, don’t you think?” he said.
Her quick reply, in his words: “When I was state secretary of commerce, I hired the former governor of Oklahoma to work for me, and it wasn’t awkward at all.”
That was a light-bulb moment. “The person most qualified for economic development is sitting right here, and she is telling me she wants to do that,” Bynum recalled in a phone interview with Silicon66.
On Dec. 5, the new administration took office, giving Taylor the opportunity to expand on an education infrastructure she spurred as mayor, when she instituted two years of free community college, regardless of income – and now build on Bynum’s vision for education and entrepreneurship.
She’s coming in with a downtown undergoing revitalization, under a PLANiTULSA she was part of developing and now will get to implement.
“All of those factors inspired me to decrease my vacation, get back in and execute the vision for the city,” she says.
She won’t be taking a salary. “It energizes me, so my life has purpose.”
Taylor says she’s looking forward to working with a young mayor – Bynum is 39 – and she likes the message that sends to the emerging workforce of Tulsa, something she’s committed to cultivating as one of Tulsa’s economic advantages.
Bynum agrees that young entrepreneurs are the future. “Tulsa is one of the best places in the country for a young professional to start a company. Tulsa is not a place where someone has to come here and wait for three decades to make a mark on the city. The ground is fertile for that here.”
Of Taylor, Bynum says it’s a real plus to have someone who has seen economic development from all sides now. “Nobody is poised to be more successful.”
Here’s a closer look, in an interview with Taylor:
Mayor G.T. Bynum says his administration views ‘education competitiveness’ as one of the great economic development issues. This was a priority for you when you were mayor, and you’ve continued to be an instrumental leader on this in every subsequent role you’ve played, whether it’s the North Tulsa Economic Development Initiative, Lobeck Taylor Family Foundation or PLANiTULSA. Why?
Both as commerce secretary and mayor, I realized I could recruit jobs, hire police officers, repave streets… but what was going to make all of that better, easier and sustainable was if every kid could have high-quality education. Crime rates decrease, health costs decrease, tax revenue increases… it all revolves around access to quality education. I want to make sure it’s inclusive across our whole community.
You are a new and avid enthusiast to entrepreneurship, though you have always been an entrepreneur yourself. What was your a-ha moment?
My husband and I, the reason we have the [Lobeck Taylor Family] Foundation is we were both entrepreneurs. But we never focused the Foundation on what had allowed us to give back.
I’m most proud that my daughter, Elizabeth Ellison as executive director, has taken us in a focused direction for entrepreneurship. She did an analysis of giving over a decade. She brought us data on the needs in the community and the leverage points if we invested. She said, ‘If you want to take your legacy into the future, entrepreneurship is the future.’
She provided stories about people who knew how to dream but didn’t have the financial ability, connections and resources to launch. It really just made me smile.
As former Secretary of Commerce for the state of Oklahoma and as a former mayor of Tulsa, you bring a bird’s eye view to the economy in Tulsa. What is that view, and how did those experiences shape you for what you will do as you step into the economic development director role?
What I saw was that while you never want to ignore a big project that could come to your community, those big projects are not as important as retaining and growing the jobs you have. Those companies will be your biggest fan base to recruit others.
At Commerce, I learned communities have to take care of what they have – infrastructure, public safety, workforce. And listen very closely to their existing businesses. Those have to be our first priority.
What felt complete when you left office as mayor in 2009?
I was obviously excited about the ability for kids to complete two years of higher education without going into debt. We knew our growing economy needed a workfore with post-high school education.
We had prepared the downtown for revitalization. It was an update of PLANiTULSA, fashioned by thousands of Tulsans for their vision of what they wanted the city to be.
What felt incomplete to you?
I see Tulsa being an entrepreneurial hub for high tech but also for food, arts and culture.
Arts and parks are a big theme in the economic development vision for Tulsa, such as the George Kaiser Family Foundation that recommended policy changes such as A Gathering Place for Tulsa, the 100-acre riverfront park to be completed in 2017, and its philanthropy awards for visual arts and now, authors.
That’s the spirit Tulsa was built on. We were built in the 1920s, betting it all on a well that might run dry.
And Route 66 is a big factor. What are the plans for that?
Route 66 has been an underutilized asset in Tulsa, but the pieces are beginning to come together. Oklahoma has more miles of Route 66 than any other state. Cyrus Avery, the father of Route 66, was a Tulsan and a statue stands in the honor of his vision for the Mother Road in Tulsa. We now have a Route 66 Foundation, and many properties are changing hands on the route and development beginning. Fuel 66 opened recently – a food truck park and bar with outdoor entertainment, and unique locally-owned businesses are popping up on the route. Bus rapid transit and bike routes in the years to come are planned to make access easy.
Those are the pieces I see out there that are beginning to come together, and when they do, it will make a huge difference in attracting a workforce, in affordability and job development.
What do you see as your biggest challenge?
It’s always that there are so many opportunities. So, setting priorities for the biggest return on investment for the economy, and making sure we’re never too busy with day-to-dy work that we don’t listen to the citizens and especially the entrepreneurs.
What cities do you most admire now?
I’ve always admired Louisville, since (former Mayor Jerry) Abramson. They have done an amazing job, and it has been difficult. Their economic development activities cover two states (Kentucky and Indiana). They have collectively worked to grow business, arts and culture, create a young people vibe.
What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
It was from former Oklahoma governor George Nigh, who told me to have a thick skin. [He said] if you do good work for the people, you’ll see a difference in the long term. He was a schoolteacher before he went into politics. He’s the only governor who has won in all 77 counties.
As we speak, you’ve just returned from a retreat with the mayor’s new team and you’re a few days from moving into your office. What’s first item you’ll put on display?
A plaque. It’s a saying I have: The purpose of life is that life should have a purpose.