Bruce Springsteen wrote in “Glory Days” of an ex-baseball star stuck in the past and not looking forward. As Oklahomans, we cannot rest on the past. We have the legacy, resources and talent to mold our future. It takes commitment, focus and action. Peter Drucker wrote, “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” Why not?
CNBC released a report recently concluding that Oklahoma has lost ground to neighboring states in business development, slipping to 25th from 23rd. Consider that Texas is at No. 1, Colorado is No. 3, Kansas is No. 11, Missouri is No. 17, and Arkansas is No. 32, yet at the Capitol, no one seems surprised.
Are we just willing to accept dismal ratings? It is a wake-up call to roll up our sleeves. Politicians have but only to campaign for re-election. Priorities need re-alignment. Rankings for education, infrastructure and quality of life put us in the bottom 20 percent.
Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe was not willing to accept less. He has focused on building the image of Arkansas as a place to do business and is aggressive, offering incentives and utilizing resources for the state’s economic future. Why not us? This is not magic. It requires leadership and hard work. We must make economic development a priority.
In Arkansas, Beebe recognizes the importance of education for economic development. For example, a $100 million wind turbine plant chose Ft. Smith over 60 other potential cities, bringing at least 400 new jobs. Why? The governor aligned with the University of Arkansas and other state schools to offer training for skilled workers. Plus, he threw in $3.75 million from the state’s Quick Action Closing Fund. Similar training capabilities also helped attract a 1,200-employee Hewlett Packard facility in Conway, Ark.
If Arkansas, why not Oklahoma? We have powerful universities and the best CareerTech system in the nation. Training can be an industry. But, we lack coordinated leadership to bring incentives and educational resources together. Where is the needed bold, assertive action offering a progressive business image? Our focus must change to pro-action, ditching a bunker mentality amid financial crisis. Instead, to expedite ill-conceived budget cuts, the Legislature eliminated incentives for minority, small and rural business development, all at a time critical for business when any incentives are worth their weight in gold. While saving pennies, the impact is severe. What backwards strategy was behind this other than immediacy?
We must learn from others or be passed by. San Antonio lost its Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) facility when Kelly Air Force Base closed under the Base Realignment and Closure system. Yet instead of folding the tent, San Antonio created a port authority, and with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison immediately set about bringing aviation companies to the old base. Today, it is a booming aerospace center that supports thousands of jobs. We still have a vital, operational MRO at Tinker Air Force Base. With coordination between our congressional delegation, state government and chambers, we can increase support for Tinker. It is a powerful magnet for job creation and business growth. Why not?
We must demand forward thinking leadership. The negative impact of tax cuts from past years limits our solutions. Candidates still promote more tax cuts, yet we sorely need revenue sources. To increase state revenue, we must diversify our economy, attract new businesses and reduce dependency on cyclical gross production taxes.
We can compete. We can set priorities. Why not, Oklahoma?
Busey is chairman and CEO of the Busey Group of Companies.