Companies Learn What U.S. Workers Already Know: Smaller Cities Are The Future

As workers reconsider the lure of big cities in favor of smaller metros, companies too are rethinking their own footprint.

As one of USA Today’s top six cities for small businesses in 2020, Tulsa, Oklahoma, is proving it’s much more than an iconic stretch of Route 66 and some historical Art Deco architecture. It’s a mix of bright talent, low energy costs, and ample resources that helps make the region so attractive.

Now, with smaller cities on everyone’s radar as a result of the pandemic, places like Tulsa know their time is now. Lockdowns and quarantines alongside sky-high rents and remote working have changed the way Americans work. No longer do they need to be in New York or San Francisco to be part of big-name companies.

Tulsa was already ahead of the game in introducing Tulsa Remote, to attract remote workers that became the envy of cities across the country well before the pandemic made offices temporarily obsolete. With that momentum in tow, along with collaborative efforts to help businesses reopen safely, the city awaits a very different era of prosperity than the oil boom more than 100 years ago.

Where’s the proof? 

It’s easy to say that small cities like Tulsa are the future, but it’s more interesting to show how. Pierce H. Norton II, President and Chief Executive Officer at ONE Gas, a company that began in 1906, is a driver of the energy industry in Tulsa but also a local Tulsa businessman. His experiences have led him here, where he has helped ONE Gas weather the pandemic by adapting skillfully, but he chalks a lot of his success up to Tulsa itself and the environment he and his employees inhabit.

While major oil companies have left for Texas, Tulsa’s tightknit companies have continued to foster an environment of communication and innovation, according to Norton. He and other business leaders have worked closely to coordinate reopening efforts in step with the government guidelines through the Norton said that all PPE distribution and safety communication was efficient and effective. His company embraced the measures, even installing infrared cameras, temperature checks, and piloting personal trackers to aid in contact tracing.

“I’m proud of Tulsa, the way we’ve all collaborated with one another, and I think that’s huge to underscore,” he said, adding that it was a two-way street. “We felt supported by the city and its leadership, but I think the city would also say it’s been supported by the businesses,” he said.

Looking beyond 2020

It’s not just the short-term reactions to the pandemic that illustrate why Tulsa is a solid choice for businesses. Four hours from Dallas, the same from Kansas City, and with one of the largest inland ports in the country, it’s positioned – geographically and culturally – to be the next big name in business.

In 2020, the aviation industry furthered investments in Tulsa with American Airlines pledging $550 million more for its maintenance base. Historically, the city is known as home to many major energy companies and continues to be home to many midsized energy companies working to provide some of the lowest energy prices in the nation, benefiting manufacturers. Companies like ONE Gas are looking to the future, to cleaner forms of energy and more efficient means of using existing infrastructure.

Norton embraces a greener future, and encourages looking beyond just cutting carbon emissions. It needs to be the lowest energy cost and most reliable in addition to developing a net-zero energy system. “The upstream, midstream and downstream natural gas businesses in Tulsa will be key in creating a greener future that all businesses can rely on,” Norton said.

An ever-growing environment of incubators and established universities excel in innovation and, at the University of Tulsa, areas like cyber security. Small business incubators like the Forge, opened in 2009, help innovative startups achieve success. A newer addition, 36 Degrees North, also helps lay the foundation for the future businesses in Tulsa. By providing workspace but also ample networking opportunities, these incubators are fostering environments where tomorrow’s tight-knit business communities begin the weaving process.

Then there is the city itself. Its riverfront walks, an easy commute from the suburbs, and the revolutionary new park called the Gathering Place – sometimes touted as the – are a winning hand for quality of life discussions. “In 15 years Tulsa has pretty well transformed itself,” Norton said, describing his time since arriving.

Add to all this a bustling cultural and dining scene that are sure to boom again once the virus is conquered, and you start getting hints and tastes of the recipe for success in Tulsa. Its museums and cultural centers displaying First American culture, Western art, gorgeous Art Deco examples, and even a few oddities along Route 66 create a blend of offerings unlike anywhere else in the nation.

Winning talent 

The most important indicator, however, is in the people themselves. Norton suggests looking no further than the license plates around town to get a sense of how many people from across the United States have already made the move to Tulsa. Austin may have nabbed Tesla this year, but Norton is confident that Tulsa will be next on the big companies’ radar for manufacturing and operations.

“The people around here have a great attitude toward business, and the people are warm, they’re friendly, they’re genuine, they’re authentic,” Norton said. The local hospitality is on full display around town, buttressed by a diligent work ethic.

Companies like ONE Gas focus so diligently on their company values that COVID-19 did not turn their world upside down. “We spend so much time on our core values and mission to deliver natural gas for a better tomorrow that during a disruption like this, people don’t panic. They trust you and we trust them to get their work done, and that’s what has been our biggest strength,” Norton explained.

Tulsa’s leaders realize that some people need convincing, that a smaller city isn’t necessarily a huge draw despite clear selling points for those on the inside. In 2018, long before remote work schemes were popularized because of the pandemic, Tulsa was already ahead of the curve attracting talent in innovative ways.

The George Kaiser Family Foundation launched the Tulsa Remote program to provide a straightforward solution to attract new blood to the city. By paying transplants $10,000 to come and work remotely from Tulsa, the city is drawing new talent and new ideas to the region. Incentives are especially appealing as Americans are tallying the increasingly high cost of working at home following COVID-19.

Recipe for success?

Tulsa has all of the winning virtues of a big city with none of the crowds or excessive cost of living – or cost of operations, for that matter. It’s attractive for people now during a pandemic, but the city’s advantages won’t fade with a vaccine. Tulsa is playing the long game, positioning itself as the clear alternative for years to come.

Companies in search of the next “it” town may just consider what countless Americans are doing at an individual level and look beyond the usual suspects. The future of work and business will be remote and affordable, efficient and logical, and Tulsa hopes to be the city that convinces American enterprises of that.


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