On a stifling July day, Elon Musk sat across from the governor of Oklahoma under a small white pop-up tent, a red Tesla flag waving from a short pole in an otherwise unadorned field.
That the billionaire was even in Oklahoma, seriously considering putting a gigantic new Tesla factory outside of Tulsa, was a major turning point for the frequently overlooked state. Suddenly, Oklahoma could boast of being on par with its much larger neighbor and rival, Texas. The only other city still in the running for the plant, by that point in 2020, was Austin.
The wide shadow of Texas has long fallen over Oklahoma. Despite offering the same red-state promise of open land, a cowboy ethos and limited government regulations, Oklahoma has found itself a perennial also-ran, especially in recent decades as Texas cities became magnets for new companies and workers from around the country.
In the end, Mr. Musk chose Austin. But the long-shot bid put Oklahoma on the map for relocating companies and workers, and inspired a new resolve to make the state a more appealing place to work and live.
Since 2018, Tulsa has been offering remote workers $10,000 to move to the city for at least a year. In its first year, 70 people took the city up on the offer. In 2021, 950 people made the move. Many stayed.
“I can’t believe I live in Oklahoma — it’s like even weird to say,” said Chris Bland, who took the $10,000 and moved in 2021 from an apartment in Harlem, working remotely as an environmental scientist at New York’s Mount Sinai Health System.
Since then, Mr. Bland, 29, has been selling his friends and family on Tulsa — restaurants, bars, $895 a month for a studio apartment downtown — and he has already stayed longer than the single year required by the program, which is funded by the Tulsa-based George Kaiser Family Foundation.
Oklahoma City has taken a different tack, raising money from residents and visitors — in the form of a dedicated 1 percent sales tax — and spending hundreds of millions of dollars in recent decades on things like new parks, a canal, a streetcar system and a basketball arena. The city remade its downtown, and new shops and restaurants replaced those that had long ago vanished.
Many American cities have been spending to improve their downtown amenities, and other states also offer tax breaks and other incentives to try to lure businesses.
But Oklahoma City is now one of the country’s fastest-growing large cities, climbing past Boston and Washington to become the 20th largest by population, with 687,000 people. Still, the state’s growth has been dwarfed by the roaring boom in Texas, which has welcomed a rush of transplants from other states and new immigrants from around the world. The Texas economy is second in the United States only to California, and it has been growing faster.
But Oklahoma officials now see a chance to draft off that boom, selling their state as a place that is just as business-friendly, at a more affordable entry point.
“We hope it’s the next Texas,” said Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell of Oklahoma, sitting in a Houston seafood restaurant for a series of recent meetings to entice more international energy investment in his state.
More than 100 companies have come to Oklahoma in the last five years, including 29 last year, and another 200 have announced expansions, according to the state Commerce Department, resulting in more than $10 billion in promised new investments. Six companies moved their headquarters to the state.
The rivalry with Texas nonetheless remains a bit one-sided. Oklahoma has three Fortune 500 companies headquartered in
the state, all in the oil and gas industry; Texas has more than 50. Asked about the threat posed by their neighbor, Texas officials did not see one.
“Texas is dominating for the 18th year in a row as the Best State for Business,” Andrew Mahaleris, the press secretary to Gov. Greg Abbott, said in a statement, citing a ranking in Chief Executive magazine. “Texas will continue to remain number one because of the unmatched competitive advantages we offer: no corporate or personal income taxes, a predictable regulatory climate, and a young, growing and skilled work force.”
But soaring housing prices in Austin and other Texas cities are undermining some of the state’s competitive advantage.
“There are a lot of states around here that are a lot cheaper to live,” said Vance Ginn, an economist in the Trump administration and a former chief economist at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank. “That is a concern.”
Don Ward, a Texas native and entrepreneur, is moving his small technology business, Laundris, to Tulsa from Austin. Mr. Ward, 53, said he worried about the rapid rise of housing and other costs, and Tulsa offered some of the small-city feel that he said had been vanishing from Austin, whose population is now just under 1 million.
“Austin has been more focused on working with the Elon Musks of the world,” Mr. Ward said. “Tulsa gave me an opportunity to be a big fish in a smaller pond again.”
Reliable electricity is another issue Oklahoma is using as a selling point. The failure of the Texas electrical grid during a brutal winter storm in February 2021 fueled new interest in states, like Oklahoma, with energy infrastructure seen as more reliable.
Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican, boasted in a recent interview about not only the state’s “affordable, reliable energy grid” but his effort to do away with 25 percent of the state’s regulations on businesses.
Seated in his office in the Capitol, Mr. Stitt conceded that Texas has long had a reputation as a good place for business. “But it’s getting overcrowded,” he said, noting that commute times around Oklahoma City are far shorter than those in Dallas-Fort Worth.
It has long been easy to drive around Oklahoma City. The problem was a lack of things to drive to. The need became apparent decades ago, when the city lost out to Indianapolis for a United Airlines maintenance center. Company executives had visited Oklahoma City and found they simply could not make their employees live there.
“It was terrible,” said David Holt, 43, who grew up in Oklahoma City in the 1990s and is now in his second term as mayor. “All my peers who had any wherewithal went to Dallas or Houston or the more adventurous off to California or New York.”
The city began a long process to make itself more attractive, one that continues. On a recent weekday, a billboard across from the Oklahoma City Thunder arena proclaimed “Always Onward” over a newly opened park of spindly young trees. (The state, for its part, has been trying a different tagline: “Imagine That.”)
The city has also been transforming politically. Once reliably red, Oklahoma City is now solidly purple, having narrowly favored former President Donald J. Trump in 2020 but voting by a wide margin for the losing Democratic candidate for governor last year.
Governor Stitt, a businessman and political newcomer when first elected in 2018, said that he did not worry that efforts to attract newcomers to the state’s urban centers would alter its political identity.
“We’re finding people moving here from the quote unquote liberal states because of their policies,” he said, adding that he and other state leaders were clear about their conservative principles. “It’s not for everybody. If this is not who you are, great, you don’t have to live in our state.”
Tulsa has similarly been shifting politically, and in its attitude about itself, said Mayor G.T. Bynum, also a Republican in a nonpartisan office. He said the amount of investment in the city was akin to the 1920s oil boom and, because of Tesla’s interest, the city was hearing from other electric vehicle and battery companies. “Elon Musk netted us tens of thousands of dollars in free advertising,” Mr. Bynum said.
Even so, by the time he visited, Mr. Musk may have already made his decision against Oklahoma, for many of the same old reasons.
“The fundamental problem I have is getting people to move out of California,” Mr. Musk told the head of work force development in Oklahoma in 2020, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press. “Austin is one of the few places to which they will move.”
The population of Austin has grown more than 20 percent in the last decade. But Oklahoma City has also grown by nearly that much during that time period, roughly 18 percent, a fact Mayor Holt attributes in part to his city’s ability to appeal to those seeking what Austin used to be.
“We have a lot of the things that you would expect to find in a large American city, but without the hassle,” he said. “I think that’s a combination that maybe only has a finite window. It’s the combination Austin offered 20 years ago, and then everybody took them up on it, and now it’s too crowded.”
Originally published at The New York Times.
Vance Ginn, Ph.D.