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Tulsa Retools Itself for the Remote Work Revolution

Tulsa has long relied on oil and gas to fuel its economy. It's created a tech and entertainment ecosystem that turned out to be a perfect fit for the era of remote work.

Tulsa, Okla.
Tulsa, Okla., a city of 400,000 in a metro area of just over a million, proved to be nimble and adaptable through the pandemic, emerging well positioned for the remote work era.
(Alan Greenblatt/Governing)
For most of her adult life, Megan Thomas felt trapped in Los Angeles. She moved to L.A. from a small town for college, then stayed for marriage and graduate school and her career as a consultant. What had long been aggravating — raising children in a tiny but unaffordable house with no yard — became unbearable during the pandemic. “I had always been trying to get out of L.A.,” she says. “When COVID hit, my husband and I were like, ‘We have to get out of here.’”

Thomas did what thousands of people have done over the past couple of years: She moved to Tulsa. She runs a nonprofit called InTulsa that acts as matchmaker between companies looking for talent and individuals looking for jobs. “We helped place a local woman,” Thomas says, “and since then she’s referred four other family members, and we have gotten them all jobs within Tulsa.”
Megan Thomas Tulsa
Megan Thomas left L.A. for Tulsa and hasn't looked back.
(Alan Greenblatt/Governing)
For years, there was an informal saying in Tulsa — if you’re achieving, you’re leaving. Like other places blessed with oil, Tulsa didn’t feel the need to invest in much else. The city lost population in years when the oil economy struggled and over the long term was a net exporter of residents of prime working age. That’s turned around lately, with the city working hard to resuscitate its long-dormant entrepreneurial spirit.

The decade between the Great Recession and the start of the pandemic belonged to a small number of superstar cities. The Seattles and San Franciscos snarfed up way more than their share of business startups and college-educated workers. The pandemic — with its forced experiment in remote work — has reshuffled the nation’s economic deck, allowing heartland cities such as Tulsa to compete. There’s now a giant sucking sound of jobs and people moving from blue cities to red states. In Tulsa, the number of tech job postings have doubled in the past five years.

“The prime age workforce was concentrating in tech hubs, but now we see them distributing across the country,” says Kenan Fikri, research director for the Economic Innovation Group (EIG) in Washington. “Last year, a greater share of counties in far more of the country experienced growth in the prime working age population then they have for years.”

The number of remote workers nationwide has quintupled during the pandemic. Many of them have, like Thomas, decided to look for cheaper and easier places from which to do their jobs. Tulsa is doing everything it can to prod people looking at listings on Zillow to actually rent moving vans — most famously, through its Tulsa Remote program, which pays people $10,000 if they move to the city for a year.

Tulsa Remote is the most successful of the dozens of relocation incentive programs around the country, having brought 1,800 people to town so far. According to an EIG study of the early arrivers, 88 percent of them were college graduates, with an average income of $105,000. “People who can work remotely, by definition their skills are augmented by technology and they are highly paid,” Fikri says.

Tulsa Remote offers them more than money. There are 25 full-time staffers devoted to holding newcomers’ hands, helping them with housing and other relocation needs and then introducing them around through various networking events held on average every other night. “It’s kind of like an orientation into the city model,” says Vondell Burns, a “remoter” who moved herself and her video production company to Tulsa from Brooklyn. “A lot of the beauty in Tulsa Remote was that they would provide you the opportunity to network on their dime, which is unheard of.”

Most of the remoters are staying — keeping not only their incomes but their expertise and connections to major tech hubs in the city. Tulsa Remote and InTulsa are themselves part of a network of nonprofits helping individuals train for and find jobs, and connecting entrepreneurs and established companies to the resources and talent they need. They’re all funded by the George Kaiser Family Foundation — itself funded by an oil and banking billionaire — which has also lavished hundreds of millions of dollars on parks, museums and other infrastructure and human capital improvements.

The city’s long-term plan for making itself into a real destination has gone into overdrive, thanks to the pandemic. “We're in the greatest moment of investment in the history of the city right now,” says Mayor G.T. Bynum. “In the last six years, we’ve landed the two largest new employers in the history of the city, the largest economic development investment in the history of the city, opened the largest park gift in the history of the country and passed by the largest margin in city history a capital improvements program.”
Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum
Mayor G.T. Bynum says Tulsa is attracting the most investment in its history.
(Alan Greenblatt/Governing)
All the ingredients for success were present in Tulsa, but the city couldn’t get its act together. Rancor among the various actors used to be a bad habit, with too much energy expended on in-fighting. Disputes between mayors and the city council provided routine fodder for the front page of the Tulsa World, while city and county officials feuded over who should bear the cost of jailing inmates. “Working together for projects is important,” says Justin McLaughlin, executive vice president of the Tulsa Regional Chamber. “They may need a bigger site outside of the city of Tulsa, but the city of Tulsa still gets a big lift from that.”

McLaughlin meets for breakfast with officials from the George Kaiser Family Foundation and the city every Monday. It’s one of countless standing or informal meetings that take place between various groups within the city. There’s a lot of overlapping work in economic development. Now, throughout Tulsa, people aim to act as a 311 number, connecting you with the right person to address your issue, regardless of which organization they might be working for.

People and companies are drawn to this newfound spirit of collaboration. When Bynum first took office and asked companies why they were considering Tulsa, they’d invariably cite the city’s workforce, cheap electricity and plentiful water. That was straightforward but not necessarily inspiring, he says. “Over the last couple of years when I asked CEOs that question, what they said over and over again is that this feels like it’s a community where everybody’s rowing in the same direction,” Bynum says.

Tulsa hasn’t won every battle in the economic war. In 2020, Tesla passed over Tulsa as the site of a Gigafactory, picking Elon Musk’s new hometown of Austin instead. Last month, Panasonic announced it would build a $4 billion electric car battery plant in Kansas instead of Tulsa. But there were silver linings in both cases. Its work on the Tesla deal helped put the city on the map for electric vehicle makers, with Canoo announcing last fall it would bring at least 375 jobs to Tulsa. And it turns out that Panasonic, despite receiving more than $1 billion in state and local incentives, has offered no job or pay guarantees in return.

The growth spurt in Tulsa has created real problems with housing, along with resentment over items such as $8 coffees that the coastal transplants don’t blink at paying for. A lot of people in Tulsa now talk warily about not wanting to be the next Austin, where average rents have doubled over the past year, the nation’s biggest spike.

Growth presents challenges to any city, but generally it solves a lot of problems that are worse. “Anybody that’s worried about us growing too much, just know that we tried the alternative,” Bynum says. “It was called the ‘80s, and it did not work out well.”

Investing in Itself

Bynum is careful to credit that line to David Holt, his counterpart in Oklahoma City. That city’s success in growing its economy and revitalizing its downtown was at least part of the spur that led Tulsa finally to try a different approach. Twenty years ago, voters approved a capital improvements measure that paid for the BOK Center, the city’s downtown arena. “That was the first really big invest-in-ourselves kind of sales tax or bond issue that had passed in Tulsa in a long time,” Bynum says. “Several attempts had failed.”
BOK Center 0213.jpg
The BOK Center (that's short for Bank of Oklahoma) was funded through a capital improvements measure that helped kick off Tulsa's downtown renaissance. (David Kidd/Governing)
It wasn’t the city’s last big investment. A minor league ballpark opened up on the edge of downtown in 2010, helping to draw people “over the tracks.” The area across the railroad tracks to the north of downtown had long been a no-go zone, filled with abandoned factories and other boarded-up buildings. Now it’s called the Arts District — home to numerous museums, restaurants and, indeed, artists. “The Tulsa Artist Fellowship is here, which has drawn some very, very talented people who could otherwise be playing the art world game in New York,” says Steven Jenkins, a recent transplant from San Francisco.

Jenkins is director of the Bob Dylan Center, which received national attention when it opened in May. As many as 300 people a day come to look at lyrics the Nobel laureate scrawled on pieces of hotel stationery, or view oddities such as video of his visit to the set of a John Wayne movie. They come from all over the world; just the other day, a group of museum designers from Saudi Arabia showed up. “The center is really hitting people emotionally,” Jenkins says. “It’s not unusual for someone to cry. There are also spontaneous dance parties that break out.”
Steven Jenkins
"There's more going on here than we anticipated," says Steven Jenkins, who moved to Tulsa this spring to run its new Bob Dylan Center. (Alan Greenblatt/Governing)
Dylan grew up in Minnesota and has a home in Malibu, Calif., so having his museum in Tulsa makes no sense, except for two things. The new museum, which is housed in a former paper factory, is two doors down from the Woody Guthrie Center — a museum dedicated to an actual Oklahoma songwriter who Dylan idolized — and the George Kaiser Family Foundation was willing to pay him millions for his collection.

The foundation runs the two museums, as well as Guthrie Green, a park across the street that takes up an entire city block. It also paid for streetscaping improvements around the Arts District. All told, the foundation has sunk some $200 million into Tulsa’s Arts District. There are condo buildings popping up all around and yet another museum, dedicated to pop culture, will be opening soon.

The neighborhood’s new attractiveness is demonstrated by a new, 250,000-square-foot office building that’s about to open on the next block from the Bob Dylan Center, providing space to attorneys and mutual fund advisers. “Healthy, vibrant communities have arts districts,” says foundation official Jeff Stava.

The foundation’s investment in the Arts District still pales in comparison to the Gathering Place, the $465 million park it opened in 2018. Meandering paths take visitors through stands of pine and 18 acres of wildflowers, past a 45-foot-long pirate ship and other elaborate play areas. The park is still growing. In January, a children’s museum opened at its southern end, while a pedestrian bridge is going up over the Arkansas River, which will link the Gathering Place to West Tulsa and the Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness Area.
Gathering Place, Tulsa, Okla.
The Gathering Place, a half-billion-dollar park along Tulsa's riverfront, is still growing. (David Kidd/Governing)
David Kidd
The foundation employs 147 people who program and impeccably maintain the Gathering Place. That’s 13 percent more people than the entire staff of the city’s own parks department, which operates 135 different parks and recreation facilities that collectively occupy roughly 1,000 times as much land as the Gathering Place.

The foundation began thinking about the park after Tulsa voters rejected a $282 million measure to fund riverfront development in 2007. The fact that the George Kaiser Family Foundation has its fingers and dollars in so many pies around town naturally raises the question of whether it wields undue influence in the city. Plenty of wealthy philanthropists have drawn criticism around the country in recent years, with their priorities jumping ahead of what the broader public might want.

But private foundations are more often criticized for failing to meet the challenges of their communities at the scale that’s needed, says Brian Mittendorf, an expert on philanthropy at Ohio State University. “It is nice to see a foundation with that clarity of focus that also brings along the commitment and resources to see it through,” he says.

“I can't quite think what would have happened to Tulsa without Kaiser,” says one longtime resident. “Does that mean the town is overly dependent on a private benefactor? Sure. Is that worse than going down the tubes? You tell me.”

Coming Up to Code

In a former milk truck storage facility, students sit crouched over laptops, learning how to code. Prior to the pandemic, the entire state of Oklahoma only educated 500 new software developers per year. Just opened in 2020, Holberton Academy is now producing 100 a year. It expects to train five times that many in the coming years, with its physical footprint about to triple in size. Its entryway is decorated with jolly Polaroids of its graduates, under a sign that says “you got a job!”

About two-thirds of the graduates have taken jobs with Tulsa-based employers. Most of the rest are staying in town but working remotely. They have big incentives to stay. Thanks to George Kaiser Family Foundation support, many don’t pay tuition up front. Instead, they owe Holberton a share of their income for their first three-and-a-half years of work. That share drops from 17 percent to 10 percent if they stay in town, while need-based grants of up to $1,500 per month are forgiven entirely.

It used to be that people looking for work in fields other than oil and aerospace wouldn’t have much luck in Tulsa. Now, if Holberton grads are looking for work, they can knock on Megan Thomas’ door, just up the street. Or they can walk over to City Hall, where an incubator called 36 Degrees North has taken over an entire floor, giving space and support to 38 companies and six capital investors. Between its three locations, 36 Degrees North helped dozens of companies generate 2,200 jobs and $111 million in sales last year.

“The thing our members point to over and over and over is the community,” says Devon Laney, the CEO of 36 Degrees North. “We know who they are, we know what they’re trying to do and we can connect with them with the right resources, the right relationships to give them growth.”

Laney says that Tulsa presented him with a welcome challenge after working in Birmingham. It’s still a smaller market where it’s possible to make an impact, and one that’s learned to align its workforce incentives, infrastructure, education and capital. If you hang around with enough civic leaders in Tulsa, you may soon grow allergic to hearing the term “intentional.” But the intertwined nonprofits and agencies involved in economic development are self-consciously seeking to swim in the same direction.

“It's a small enough city that once you get everything aligned, a lot of good things can happen,” says Fikri, the EIG economist. “Tulsa is indicative of the legacy assets that many midsized cities are endowed with, that with the right leadership and innovation can be activated quite powerfully.”

Grappling With the Past

About 40 percent of Tulsa Remote participants already had some ties to Tulsa. They’re boomerangs returning home or have family connections there. But Tulsa also has new residents who will tell you there was a time when they had to use Google to find out where the city is. Newcomers arriving from coastal cities or places like Chicago openly share the worries they harbored about Oklahoma’s right-leaning politics. “Will we feel comfortable as a couple?” Jenkins, the Bob Dylan Center director, says he and his husband asked themselves. “We lived in the Castro District and there were so many things we took for granted — will it be that way in Tulsa?” He says they’ve had no problems and his husband is working with a gay rights group in the city.

Vondell Burns, the video producer, says she intentionally timed her first visit to Tulsa to coincide with last year’s centennial commemorations of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, in which as many as 300 people were killed and dozens of blocks were destroyed. The city had long sought to bury memories of the atrocity but is now home to a museum that helps it to grapple with its legacy.

“That event was the catalyst for my move, because it gave me a glimpse into what Tulsa could be,” Burns says. “My long-term, North Star goal was to understand how a city like Tulsa recovers from something like that, because a lot of cities in America have that history.”

Prior to the massacre, the Greenwood section was home to enough Black millionaires and members of the middle class that it was known as “Black Wall Street.” Tulsa’s economic strategy includes building wealth in struggling sections of town and its Black and Native American communities. The goal of achieving greater equity is the work of decades, not years, but real efforts are underway.

Build In Tulsa is a new nonprofit that supports Black entrepreneurs, offering them office space and grants and other types of assistance, depending on whether they’re just starting or are ready to expand. There are 134 companies in its network and a couple have already raised more than $6 million, says Ashli Sims, Build In Tulsa’s managing director. “While lots of people made pledges and promises after George Floyd, we took our pledge and turned it into action,” Sims says. “And we’re getting it done. We could get cynical, but we got too much work to do for that, so I keep my head down and keep grinding and keep trying to make opportunities for these Black founders.”
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Ashli Sims directs Build In Tulsa, a nonprofit boosting Black entrepreneurs. She calls this Tulsa's most hopeful moment. (Alan Greenblatt/Governing)
Bryan K
It's a never-ending cycle of meetings and email exchanges between Sims and her collaborators at other nonprofits and the business sector. While the city and its partners seek to smash the silos that made collaboration difficult in the past, Tulsa has grown increasingly confident that its mix of institutional support, expanding list of amenities and — compared to the Austins and Bostons of the world – bargain housing costs will bring in more talented workers and the companies that want to hire them.

“I’ve been here since I was 6,” Sims says. “This is the most hopeful I’ve ever felt about this city, this moment right now.”
Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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