Twenty-five years ago, the late Danney Goble published a history of Tulsa subtitled “Biography of the American City.” In it, Goble contended Tulsa is both unique and typical, singular as one of the most American of American cities.
That same theme played out Thursday as federal officials discussed the reasons a consortium of Tulsa interests received one of the 21 regional Build Back Better grants awarded by the Biden administration.
“There’s a lot about Tulsa that looks like a lot of this country,” said Scott Andes, project lead for the U.S. Economic Development Administration. “One of the things that we said is we want anyone in America to be able to look at one of the winners and say, ‘We could do that.’”
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“There is something about these communities that is aspirational for us,” said Andes. “There is a lot about Tulsa that looks like a lot of places that want to be successful. That’s everything from things that went poorly in the last 100 years and some of the things that were negative, and then how you come back from it. People can see their home communities in what you have done.”
Andes was one of several EDA officials, including the agency’s chief operating officer (and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce) Dennis Alvord, in town to formally acknowledge the $39 million grant to the Tulsa Regional Advanced Mobility Cluster.
“We came in force because this is a really important project for us,” said Alvord. “I don’t think EDA has ever made investments this large that have the potential to be so impactful and so transformative.”
TRAM, led by the Indian Nations Council of Governments, involves at least a dozen partners, including the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma State University, the Osage Nation, Tulsa Regional Chamber of Commerce, Tulsa Ports, Tulsa Airports Improvement Trust and the George Kaiser Family Foundation.
With the Build Back Better grant, TRAM plans is to quickly ramp up research, development, manufacturing in the field of unmanned aircraft and other autonomous vehicles.
Besides the grant, TRAM is receiving $32 million in cash and in-kind assistance, including $10 million from GKFF and $6 million from Oklahoma State University.
LaunchPad, the research component of TRAM, will be located in the Helmerich Research Center at OSU-Tulsa. The Osage Nation’s Skyway36, off 36th Street North and the Tisdale Expressway, will serve as a test site.
The TRAM proposal notes OSU-Tulsa is in what was for decades the heart of Tulsa’s Black Greenwood District, and pledges to make sure the program’s economic benefits reach all ethnic, economic and geographic groups in the area.
Tyrance Billingsley II, founder of Tulsa’s Black Tech Street, said the project framework includes “specific measurements and evaluations” to “make sure that the commitment we have to equity is not something that is lip-service.”
Mayor G.T. Bynum compared the enterprise to some earlier investments, such as the construction of a World War II bomber plant at the Tulsa Airport that’s now home to one of the world’s largest bus factories, and the years that went into planning and completion of the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System.
“The original public investment grew far greater private investment than those involved could ever have predicted,” Bynum said. “I’m thinking now of where we will be with mobility in 10 or 15 years.”