Tahlequah Daily Press

January 16, 2013

Path to prosperity

Area residents gathered Tuesday to hear three local officials talk about the “State of the Community” during a luncheon at Go Ye Village.

Staff Writer

TAHLEQUAH — While other communities across Oklahoma struggle to recover from the economic downturn, Tahlequah seems poised on the brink of success.

Local residents gathered Tuesday at Go Ye Village’s Richardson Hall to listen to Mayor Jason Nichols, Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker and Northeastern State University President Dr. Steve Turner discuss the “State of the Community” and upcoming plans for the near future.

Turner served as master of ceremonies, and also outlined a few projects NSU has on the drawing board.

“What Northeastern State University does, what the city does, the Cherokee Nation and the county [affects the community as a whole],” said Turner. “I don’t see NSU as anything but part of that equation. If I had to use one word to describe the community, it would be ‘strong.’”

Turner said immediate plans include expanding the University Center’s food service area; completing the multipurpose event center under construction south of Gable Field; breaking ground on new student housing; and renovating the NSU Fitness Center.

“The multipurpose event center should be completed in 2013, and is designed for a lot of different opportunities,” said Turner. “It will have seating for 3,100 and if the [basketball] court is used, that increases by 900 to 1,000 seats, providing over 4,000 seats for a number of diverse events.”

Turner said the recently-passed three-quarter-cent sales tax will  help in completing the center.

“It adds a piece that was part of the original design, but for which we lacked funding,” said Turner. “I’m glad the sales tax passed, and I’d like to acknowledge the mayor for his hard work on this effort and appreciate the support of the voters.”

Turner said renovation of the fitness center will cost about $9 million, but will provide the community a facility that will last 20 to 30  years.

“As far as the pool is concerned, the decking has been replaced,” said Turner. “There are still Americans with Disabilities Act issues, as well as the area near the ceiling that has been degraded by chlorine and caustic air. This part of the renovation is about 98 percent complete, and I expect the cabinet to sign off of the final stages next week. The down side is that utilities will be interrupted. We’re looking at options for our students, faculty and community members who use the facility. Just as we’ve had to close the pool, we’ll have to close the other part to complete the renovation.”

Nichols began by thanking the voters for passing the sales tax.

“The voters approved a $21 million increase over two years that will benefit streets, roads, parks, emergency management and even solid waste,” said Nichols. “Someone mentioned a mistake was made in how the issue was brought forth, but it is completely without merit. The law firm we hired to help us with the election has been over and over the process, and we are in the clear. The claims that we moved too quickly also proved to be without merit.”

Nichols thanked all voters – even those who opposed the tax – for participating in the process. He also encouraged everyone to participate in the upcoming city elections, in which voters will decide who serves as police chief, street commissioner, and Ward 2 city councilor.

“The city’s budget is running 6 percent above the expected revenue,” said Nichols. “The city is doing just fine.

Nichols mentioned the Tahlequah Industrial Park is getting a new tenant, and the business would create about 20 new jobs in the beginning, with the possibility of expanding to 50 in the future.

Other immediate plans include creating a central garage for city vehicles; eliminating the need for outside vendors for regular maintenance items like tire replacement and oil changes; and revitalizing and reorganizing some of the city boards and commissions.

“We’re also looking at a purchasing ordinance that would give preference to local vendors in the bidding process,” said Nichols. “We’re going to review a landscape ordinance, that would require commercial property owners to set aside a certain percentage of the property for green space. Our fiscal year runs from July 1 through June 30, so we’re starting now to talk about what we want done over that period. Now is a good time to talk to either me or your city councilor about any ideas or concerns you have.”

Baker reminded attendees of the partnership the city, the tribe and the university have shared over the years.

“Our history, our culture, our economy cannot be separated,” said Baker. “The Cherokee Nation is inexorably intertwined with the city, NSU, Tahlequah Public Works and Lake Region. We’re one big family. We meet monthly to talk about how to make this a better place to live and raise families.”

Baker mentioned the recent land purchases the tribe has made, including the Woodmark facility in the industrial park and the Berry property, which includes Cherry Springs Golf Club.

“Some [tribal] councilors say we’re doing too much in Tahlequah,” said Baker. “Well, folks, it’s capital of the Cherokee Nation. We’ve had several folks who we’re looking at for the Woodmark facility, we’re just trying to get the best fit for creating the most jobs. And at the Cherry Springs property – well, we bought more than just a golf course. We got 300 acres on the highway that developers have lusted after for years. We plan on being an integral part of the  economic and commercial development of Tahlequah for the next 20 years.”

Baker touted the tribe’s services, including Indian Child Welfare the marshal service, health care services and others. He said by revitalizing the housing authority, more citizens were move to Cherokee County, which aids the school districts.

“We have ambitious plans for the future,” said Baker. “We plan to build a 100-bed surgical hospital, because we need that space to keep our dollars in Tahlequah. We’ve partnered with Tahlequah City Hospital from time to time, and well, what you might learn soon is that we’re going to have 24-hour a day, seven-day-a-week cardiac services. TCH can’t do it on its own, and we can’t do it by ourselves, but together, we can make it happen.”

Baker was quizzed about the Cherokee Heritage Center’s budget cut handed down by the tribal council. The audience member said staff had been laid off, and asked why – especially since the CHC is celebrating it’s golden anniversary – the decision was made to deprive funding.

“Part of what you’re saying is true,” said Baker. “I proposed full funding for the Heritage Center, but the council cut it. Most people believe the Heritage Center is part of the Cherokee Nation. It’s not. It is a 501(c)3 [nonprofit organization]. The Cherokee Nation helps all kinds of [nonprofits], including Boys & Girls Club, Help-In-Crisis and CASA. I don’t think there’s a nonprofit anywhere the Cherokee Nation funds 100 percent. I think the council likened the Heritage Center to a child who has lost his job and moved back in with his parents. The Heritage Center needed a boost, and the council asked them to come up with a plan to raise 25 percent of the funding they would need to get back on track. They asked them to do what any 501(c)3 does – write grants and raise donations. Their plan was to fire the cultural staff, which is the main attraction and what brings visitors in.”

Baker said he has no intention of doing an “end run” on the council, as the legislative branch holds the purse strings.

“I support the Heritage Center,” said Baker. “All I’ve asked from them is to show me what they want to spend the money on, and I have yet to see a written document. I’m a businessman; if you show me what you’re going to do, we’ll get from point A to point B. Nobody wants me to release a quarter of a million dollars without knowing what it’s for.”