How Do America’s Heartland Cities Achieve Economic Growth in the 21st Century

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Tulsa, Oklahoma, is a great town with friendly, talented people. It has a downtown that urban millennials love with an attractive mix of loft-style housing, fun restaurants and entertainment.

But Tulsa is also a town built on the success of the oil and natural gas industry. When fossil fuel prices are high, Tulsa’s economy significantly benefits. With today’s low oil and natural gas prices, the town — and the state of Oklahoma — confront job loss, painful tax revenue declines and real threats to economic growth.

In many ways, Tulsa’s economic development situation defines U.S. towns located in America’s heartland. They are towns anchored in what made America successful in the 20th century. Some towns like Tulsa are heavily aligned with fossil fuels. Many are agriculturally-oriented with a strong link between economic success and the heavy use of chemical fertilizers, water and pesticides. Still others are regional industrial or service centers that are increasingly being challenged by a global economy and digital innovations. All of these towns share this question: How do we achieve sustained economic development in the 21st century?

A growing group of Tulsa business and community leaders are coming together to explore how sustainability can be a 21st-century path for sustained economic development.

Sustainable Tulsa

I recently had the pleasure of working in Tulsa with two key organizations leading this exploration on how sustainability can grow an economy. Sustainable Tulsa is one of these organizations. It’s a group of community and business leaders who meet monthly to surface best practices for delivering a triple-bottom-line result.

Led by its executive director, Corey Williams, Sustainable Tulsa is developing a benchmarking process among 27 piloting organizations. The process is being facilitated by 20 volunteer coaches drawn from throughout Tulsa and Oklahoma. Through this collaborative process, the group developed a ScoreCard that will introduce sustainable best practices to an organization and quantify reductions in costs and environmental impacts for decision-makers.

Tulsa Community College (TCC) is another key organization spearheading the exploration of sustainability in Tulsa. TCC is a two-year college servicing more than 27,000 enrolled students by offering over 220 degrees across its four campuses. Led by President and CEO Leigh Goodson, with staff leadership from Dr. Michael Limas as director of academic and campus services, the school has created a cross-functional effort to explore how to use sustainable best practices to lower costs and to better prepare students for success.

Importantly, Tulsa’s efforts toward sustainable economic development also include the town’s impressive mix of academic institutions and entrepreneurs. I had the pleasure of meeting key staff and faculty at Oral Roberts University, located in Tulsa. They outlined for me how they successfully cut the campus’ energy costs by two-thirds through energy efficiency. I learned in talking to University of Oklahoma representative how the college is fulfilling its energy requirements using wind power. At Tulsa University, I was honored to be interviewed on sustainable best practices by the local NPR station housed on campus.

I also met pioneering entrepreneurs who are using sustainability to win customers, reduce costs and make a difference. Libby Billings, owner of Elote, is one of my favorites. Her restaurant is a Tulsa favorite that provides a fun dining experience around healthy Mexican food. She has also pioneered a farm-to-fork-to-farm process where she buys locally-produced, organic food and then returns the food waste to the farms for composting.

Carla Grogg has become my newest example of sustainable best practices used by nurseries. Her store, Grogg’s Green Barn, attracts clients looking for edible and native plant landscaping best practices. She walks her talk by using rainwater-capture irrigation and biodynamic agricultural practices, including an insect hotel and onsite chickens to promote plant growth. Her nursery is an entertaining landscape of innovatively repurposed fixtures that house plants, animals and insects.

Tulsa’s sustainable growth question

The real question for Tulsa is not whether there is a sustainable path to economic growth. There is. The city has the talent and institutions to achieve whatever locals set their minds to achieving.

Tulsa’s real question is whether the town is willing to change. Tulsa has justifiable pride in being a leader in the oil and natural gas industry. This industry has been a source of great wealth and success. Change at the expense of selling more oil and natural gas is unwelcome.

However, change now defines the 21st century. This is a century being defined by:

  • Disruptive technologies
  • The emergence of low-carbon economic advantage
  • Millennials
  • Global competition.

The question facing Tulsa, and every American town, is: Will they choose to change? How they answer that key 21st-century question will determine their potential for sustainable economic development.

Image credit: Flickr/Frank Boston

Founder of Earth 2017. Author of The Boomer Generation Diet: Lose Weight. Have Fun. Live More that Jen Boynton, Editor in Chief of Triple Pundit , says is "Written in Bill Roth's lovable, relatable tone. A must read for any Boomer who is looking to jumpstart their health and have fun at the same time. I hope my parents read it. "

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