Council, Chamber have candid economic development talk

Robert Smith
Pawhuska Journal-Capital

The Pawhuska City Council voted, 5-0, on June 29 to renew its contract for economic development services with the Chamber of Commerce. The decision came just two days before the beginning of a new fiscal year, and in context of the Chamber having hired a new executive director.

Kelly Bland, who is now both executive director of Osage County Tourism and executive director of the Pawhuska Chamber of Commerce, began her Chamber duties June 1 and gave the council a briefing June 8 in which she urged council members to develop a vision for the community’s future and to hold her to a standard of excellent performance as an economic developer.

Supporters of the Chamber spoke June 29 in favor of renewing the economic development contract, which comes with an appropriation of $60,000, and comments were offered about the high level of talent and energy that Bland is bringing to the organization.

Some members of the council voiced a desire to ask questions and obtain more detailed answers about what to expect from Bland. While the result was a unanimous vote in favor of the contract renewal, the dialogue between Chamber supporters and council members reflected anxiety on both sides about meeting public needs and expectations.

Cindy Tillman, a member of the Chamber board, commented that Pawhuska is receiving a lot of attention regionally and is regularly the subject of television news reports.

“We’re kind of a spotlighted community right now. A lot of people want to know what we’re doing,” Tillman said.

She noted the importance of using social media tools in working to maintain Pawhuska’s current economic momentum, and said Bland had been approached by an investor who had read about her June 8 briefing to the Council.

Tillman spoke of the desire of people to open businesses in Pawhuska before the release of the movie that director Martin Scorsese has been filming in Osage County, and she added that the Chamber is willing to assist city government in encouraging owners of vacant downtown commercial properties to refurbish or sell those properties.

Jeff Bute said that municipal sales tax collections had rebounded since the worst of COVID-19. He emphasized the importance of riding a “tourism wave” that Pawhuska is experiencing, and giving visitors additional exciting places to go.

Bute, a past Chamber board president, says no one is getting wealthy promoting economic development.

“This is a labor of love,” he said.

Bute also commented on Bland’s expertise in marketing and said he is excited about what that may mean for the Cavalcade Rodeo, coming up July 12 to 18. Bute is chairman of Cavalcade.

At-large Councilor Steve Tolson agreed with Bute that sales tax collections have rebounded, but also pointed out that the city began collecting an additional sales tax penny on the dollar in April 2021. That increase in the tax rate would have to be taken into account when discussing municipal sales tax collections as a measure of economic momentum.

Former Chamber executive director Joni Nash said she thinks it’s a distinct advantage for the area that the Pawhuska Chamber, city government and county officials get along and generally work together. She spoke of wanting to protect those relationships, but also indicated that the $60,000 that Pawhuska city government pays the Chamber for doing economic development really isn’t enough.

The council did not have an appropriation increase before it June 29.

Joni Nash talked about the county tourism job and the fact that Osage County Tourism recently won three statewide awards for tourism promotion.

Bland had been in Edmond earlier in the day to accept the three RedBud Awards on behalf of the county.

“She has made that job what it is,” Nash said of Bland. “She’s going to get calls tomorrow. … Let’s realize what we have. We are privileged to have the talent that we have.”

Cyndi Kane reinforced that point.

“We’ve never had talent like this,” Kane said.

Jerry Mosley, who has been involved with the development of improvements for the Constantine Theater downtown, looked at councilors and asked, “Who doesn’t want to do this?”

Mayor Roger Taylor and other members of the council then began to weigh in with their concerns and questions.

“It’s not a question of not funding this,” Taylor said. “It’s a question of what we’re getting for our money.”

Mosley pushed his challenge.

“Who thinks it’s a good idea to defund the Chamber?” he said.

Ward 2 Councilor Amber Nash (no relation to Joni Nash) said the council was being asked to appropriate sales tax money for economic development purposes, and councilors would have to answer to the entire community.

Nash said some residents are unhappy and offer complaints such as, “You can’t get downtown. There’s too many people.”

Amber Nash raised a question about economic development over and beyond downtown retail establishments, touching on Bland’s level of preparedness to deal with issues regarding commercial real estate and the recruitment of corporations.

Bland said she has sold commercial real estate and is the owner of commercial real estate, and is prepared to interact with corporate interests.

Councilwoman Nash also voiced a concern about the city’s economic development efforts addressing a need for jobs other than those available at restaurants and hotels.

“We need jobs for people beyond that spectrum,” she said.

Mosley questioned who the councilors thought a corporation would need to communicate with if it were interested in developing a Pawhuska location.

“They are going to talk to the Chamber, I have no doubt about it,” Councilor Nash said.

Nash, a Pawhuska native in her late 60s, said she recalled a time when Pawhuska was a busy small town where it was hard to find a parking place, and then Walmart came to town and decimated the local economy.

“Pawhuska is a unique situation. It’s a beautiful situation. I’m not a villain here. I’m just asking questions,” Nash said.

Nash said she had not visited yet with Kelly Bland and clarified, “I’m not mad at her. I’m just asking questions.”

Mosley recalled that he came to the Pawhuska area some 15 years ago and parking availability was not an issue.

“And you could sure find a parking spot, day or night,” he said, reflecting on a less-prosperous period in the city’s history.

Ward 4 Councilor Rodger Milleson commented that he has received complaints about vehicles with New York and California license plates parked outside the Pawhuska post office, making it hard for locals to get in and out and do business.

“They don’t care about the movie or anything else,” Milleson said of the residents who wanted post office parking.

Milleson also spoke of comments that had been made regarding people thought to be associated with the Scorsese movie production running the intersection by Handy’s convenience store and not being ticketed for any traffic infractions. He this is the sort of thing with which councilors are presented.

“We’re not against the Chamber,” Milleson said.

“Sounds like it,” Mosley said.

“No,” Milleson said.

“It’s our job to ask questions. They’re not bad questions,” MIlleson added.

Ward 3 Councilor Mark Buchanan tried to strike a conciliatory note

“I’m thrilled that we’re short on parking spaces,” Buchanan said. He talked about the community experiencing growing pains and said he would like to see concrete goals that the Chamber would propose to pursue.

“We’re not out to attack the Chamber,” Tolson said, noting he is a past Chamber president. He said councilors need to perform their role of diligence in regard to how money is spent.

Christi McNeil, current Chamber board president, voiced an interest in budget numbers similar to that expressed by Tolson, and added that the Chamber is willing to be as helpful as possible to city government.

“I want to see this town explode, and I feel like we are on that cusp right now,” McNeil said.

“We’re sitting on a gold mine,” she said. “We just have to keep moving forward.”

Interim City Manager Tonya Bright pointed to the need for more effective communication.

“I think a lot of this is just a lack of communication,” Bright said.

She talked about having had a constructive conversation with Bland, and apologized to Joni Nash for not having had similar discussions with her when she was still Chamber executive.

Amber Nash made the motion to renew the Chamber contract. Rodger Milleson seconded the motion.