Thursday, May 19, 2005

Most Millionaires/Capita to Down & Out—Can They Come Back?

“During the 1920s and 1930s we had more millionaires/capita than any other place in the entire country,” Dale Young II, Executive Director of the Okmulgee, OK Chamber of Commerce told me on my tour of the community. You could tell that something special happened here at one time when I drove thru the downtown. But other than a 1921 Vaudeville theatre restored into a movie theater, the Creek Council House Museum and a few other retrofitted buildings the downtown needs lots of help. It has lots of potential, probably more than I’ve seen, but it will require a great deal of effort.

Okmulgee boomed when oil was first discovered near there. Frank Phillips who founded Phillips Petroleum had his start there but moved to Bartlesville. Waite Phillips, brother of Frank, stayed in Okmulgee, made a fortune in oil and diversified into ranching, real estate and banking. He was one of many millionaires who made their homes in Okmulgee. However, he and the other millionaires’ children often moved off to greener pastures.

The town has a beautiful new $2 million swimming pool and a wonderful YMCA. The funds were raised locally and from some of the foundations of those original millionaires’ heirs who now live in other areas. It is great that they continue to give back to the town of their source of wealth.

Brandon Branch, a local restaurant owner told me, “We have typical small town problems but our main problem is that we are too close to Tulsa. People tend to go there to buy their big items, even cars. Over 40% of our workers go to Tulsa for work. The wages are better there but it costs over $3000/year for them to commute there.” Tulsa is only 40 miles away on a four lane highway. It is real tough to only be a bedroom community, especially when much of your retail dollars also end up in the “job magnet” town.

An old Phillips refinery, closed in the early 1980s, is being redeveloped into a first class industrial park at great cost by the Okmulgee Area Development Corporation with help from ConocoPhillips and the OK Department of Environmental Quality. I hope that they can use this new park to catapult Okmulgee back into a more prosperous future. With 24.1% of their population living below the poverty level, they need to get it going soon.

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