By JOSH NEWTON
As one year ends and a new one begins, city officials are looking to continue a number of projects that were spurred by 2013’s capital improvements project.
The biggest city project of 2013 – and perhaps one of the biggest undertakings in the city government’s history – kicked off early last year with the passage of a new city sales tax that will garner more than $21 million.
Mayor Jason Nichols said passage of the tax increase was important for the city’s continued growth.
“The most important thing is, frankly, the improvements to the streets in the community that are a result of the project,” said Nichols. “We had probably another half-dozen street projects that were under consideration, but we selected street projects that presented the most balance between urgency and available resources.”
The $21 million is also paying for upgrades in equipment and other resources for emergency personnel; a renovation at the Tahlequah Public Library; and the addition of a community center that will be connected to Northeastern State University’s newest facility.
Nichols and other city leaders recognize the community center project spurred – and could continue to ignite – some amount of controversy. Under the agreement between the city and NSU, the city will have five guaranteed uses within the community center per year.
“But the benefit goes way beyond those five uses,” said Nichols. “This is one of the more misunderstood components of the capital improvements plan. And that is completely understandable. This kind of partnership is not something that many municipalities have an opportunity to engage in because they aren’t fortunate enough to have an institution of higher learning in their community.”
Nichols said partnering with NSU gives the community an avenue for expanding economic development.
“The biggest benefit to the citizens of Tahlequah is that thousands, perhaps tens-of-thousands, of extra visitors will come here annually and spend their money,” said Nichols.
“Obviously, you like that if you are a small business owner and someone out of town fills up their gas tank at your store, eats at your restaurant, or stays in your hotel. That’s profit for those business owners; but, it’s also tax money for Tahlequah coming from a lot of people who don’t live here. For every item bought by one of those visitors, there is a piece of road built, part of a police officer’s salary paid, or some maintenance performed in a park that wouldn’t have been done otherwise.”
Nichols said those visitors to the community center, in essence, have left a “donation” to Tahlequah’s economy and infrastructure.
Aside from the capital-improvements projects that kicked off in 2013, Nichols is also glad to see the council working to beautify the city through various codes. Councilors last year introduced ordinances outlining enclosure of large trash bins by commercial entities; landscaping rules; and regulations for removing graffiti from local properties.
“Some of those still have yet to go into effect, but once they do, we know they will help keep the community clean and raise property values while also making the city safer,” said Nichols.
Looking to the coming year
The new year will bring a flurry of activity that Nichols believes will grab the attention of most local residents in some form or fashion.
“We’ll start to see the tangible benefits of the capital improvements project,” said Nichols.
“Street projects will be started; and once we get approved from the Department of Environmental Quality, the new solid-waste transfer station will open.”
Nichols said the city hopes to obtain a grant to help clean up the current site of the solid waste department, which will eventually be at the end of a new greenway trail.
“There are a lot of regulations [in cleaning up a transfer station], so it can get fairly expensive,” said Nichols.
The new trail should be complete by the end of 2014, Nichols said. The city will also see “substantial work” at Phoenix Park, and work on the second phase of the new sports complex on West Allen Road.
“The pool will be completed, the splash pad [in downtown Tahlequah] will be completed; library renovations will be complete, and the new police station will also come online.”
Police Chief Nate King said the new police department will be a welcome change for officers and employees. Though the city’s detectives are now housed away from the police department, the new facility will place all employees under one roof.
“We’ll have a squad room with lockers, a shower facility, a dedicated room for interviews, and the jail will also be there,” said King.
Tahlequah-Cherokee County Emergency Management will also move to the new jail facility – known to many residents as the old National Guard building near West Choctaw and the State Highway 51 bypass.
Aside from ongoing improvement projects, Nichols said the city will also make some smaller changes in 2014.
“There are going to be some things we do internally that might not be brick-and-mortar changes, but that will result in efficiency and savings for the city and therefore the taxpayers,” said Nichols. “The way we operate and conduct our business needs to change in some areas. I believe a lot of small changes will result in some larger benefits.”