Tahlequah Daily Press

February 28, 2014

Embracing change

Progress and planning were the focus of the luncheon

Staff Writer

TAHLEQUAH — Tahlequah Mayor Jason Nichols believes a community can only be successful by avoiding complacency, a pitfall he plans to negate in the coming years.

Nichols, along with Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker and Northeastern State University President Steve Turner, spoke to an audience of about 200 Thursday at the second annual State of the Community luncheon.

Attendees represented a healthy cross-section of area residents, including city personnel, tribal officials, NSU faculty, staff and administration, as well as business owners, retirees and educators. The luncheon was hosted by the Tahlequah Area Chamber of Commerce, and held in Richardson Hall of Go Ye Village.

“This city will not be threatened by change; we will embrace it,” said Nichols. “We will no longer let ‘good enough’ be good enough.”

Nichols said the failure of other small towns to remain relevant and vibrant could be blamed on complacency.

“Tahlequah is not one of those cities, and will not be,” said Nichols. “I’m going to assemble a committee of local residents to take a hard look at our code book and policy manual. We need to make changes to items that no longer serve the city or meet its needs. “

Nichols pointed out a variety of changes going on throughout the city that are directly related to the passage of the $22 million bond issue in 2013.

“The new swimming pool should be open around June or July; we’ve begun Phase 2 of the sports complex project, along with renovating the old armory to house the Tahlequah Police Department,” said Nichols. “What may be most visible is the renovation of the library, which should be finished by the end of March.”

Nichols said eight street projects, at a cost of $11 million, are part of the bond issue.

“The widening of East Fourth Street will soon begin,” said Nichols. “The street projects will be unlike anything this community has seen. It’s been a long time since we’ve had work like this done, and it will an inconvenience to some at times. But I assure the businesses that we will not cut off all access to your businesses [in the areas being affected]. Since East Fourth Street will be the first project, it will be our trial balloon.”

Baker said he purposely drove through town early Thursday morning, and noticed that everywhere he went, he saw signs of the constant link among the city, the tribe and the university.

“I drove past Tahlequah City Hospital and saw the EagleMed helicopter,” said Baker. “Do you know how fortunate we are to have this service in this area? We have it because the Cherokee Nation and the city partnered to provide the funds. Neither of us could do it alone, but we combine our resources to provide the best health care for everybody.”

Baker said Cherokee Nation Businesses has committed $100 million of its casino profits to building a new hospital on the W.W. Hastings Hospital site. Other recent projects include the renovation of the Cherokee Nation Courthouse, and the Cort Mall, which now houses the Spider Art Gallery and Cherokee Nation One Fire domestic abuse services.

“Our old Safeway building has been completely remodeled and will house health services employees,” said Baker. “We’re building the new Jack Brown Center near the Markoma Gym. The old grain silo will stand in the center of the campus, which will look like a farm.”

Baker also mentioned the tribe’s purchase of the American Woodmark property in the Tahlequah Industrial Park, which employs about 100 Cherokee citizens.

“We just bought the old Oak Hill Restaurant, which will soon be home to the Cherokee Nation Tag Office,” said Baker. “This is another business that was empty that will no longer be empty. We’re working with architectural specialists on the Cherokee Springs property, and soon hope to make plans for restaurants, a hotel and other sites for small businesses and shopping.”

Baker pointed out that at the tribal complex, a new recycling center has opened, and the Cherokee Nation Veterans Center is now complete. He also said the bidding process to renovate the tribal complex has begun.

“We plan to add 30,000 square feet,” said Baker. “After 40 years, it needs a facelift.”

Baker said tribal officials hope to create a welcoming gateway on the south end of the city, just as the north end of the city has NSU.

Turner told a brief story about how former President Ronald Reagan and Speaker Tip O’Neill created synergy, despite their political differences. They agreed they would carry on business as usual until 6 p.m. each day, at which point they would visit and put partisanship aside.

“I can tell you, the mayor, Chief Baker and I get together frequently, and it’s always from the standpoint of it being after 6 p.m.,” said Turner. “It’s great to be part of a community with a vision and strategic plan. I believe you can either plan for it, or react to it.”

Turner said that collectively, the three entities are contributing $167 million in local improvements.

“NSU has a $260 million economic impact to this area, with over 1,000 employees,” said Turner. “For every $1 the state invests, we return $3.60. We contribute directly and help with the quality of life.”

Turner mentioned projects including the new event center, updates to the Market Cafe, and $2 million being invested in the John Vaughan Library.

“We also completed the first Master Plan to encompass all three campuses, which will guide us for the next 25 years,” said Turner. “We’ve dedicated $5 million to the Fitness Center.”

Turner projected completion of the swimming pool at the fitness center for the fall semester.

“We also will have an announcement at the end of March about a student housing project,” said Turner.

Both Baker and Turner alluded to a major announcement coming in April about a healthy community initiative.

“We will also have a strategic plan for January 2015 with an emphasis on community stewardship and economic development,” said Turner. “We will develop programs to train people for life, not just a job.”

Finally, Turner mentioned cuts to the university’s budget made by Gov. Mary Fallin.

“This year, we received a 5.3 percent cut from the governor’s budget,” said Fallin. “This totals 15.3 percent since 2008, and it means $2 million to NSU. In a service business, we cannot sustain these kinds of cuts. I ask our governor, our legislators and others to fund your priorities. We cannot focus on our differences, but spend time and energy on forward movement.”