Opinion: Oklahoma may be losing in bids for businesses because lawmakers focus on wrong issues

Legislators should take a look in the mirror before pointing fingers to figure out why major companies choose to set up shop elsewhere

November 3, 2023 5:29 am

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The City of Ardmore recently received devastating news that its Michelin tire plant will close by 2025.

As Oklahoma Voice reporter Carmen Forman reported, the planned closure of the 53-year-old plant, which employs 1,400 workers, came as a shock to state and community leaders.

Perhaps not surprisingly though, Oklahoma lawmakers immediately began trying to figure out what went wrong. The Senate hastily convened its Select Committee on Business Retention and Economic Development to delve into the announcement. 

Senators first created the committee in March after learning that Volkswagen had rebuffed a $700 million incentive package aimed at luring a multibillion-dollar battery plant. The company chose Canada instead. The state also previously lost out to Kansas on another massive economic development project.

During the hearing this week, senators peppered state and local economic development officials with questions about why their business retention, workforce and economic development efforts aren’t working.

Economic development officials said more money would help.

Kristen Thompson, R-Edmond, the committee’s vice chair, said the meeting made clear that there is some sort of breakdown in Oklahoma’s business retention efforts and that the state’s strategies don’t work. 

She’s absolutely right. It’s not working. But that’s probably not the fault of our economic development officials. 

They have to be able to sell the state to potential companies. And if we’ve learned anything these past few months, it’s that economic incentives are obviously not the sole factor businesses consider anymore.

Rather than point fingers at economic development officials or continue to dump money into failed business recruitment efforts, lawmakers might need to look in the mirror and reflect upon whether their legislative priorities are making Oklahoma an attractive place for businesses and employees.

The past few sessions, lawmakers have focused heavily on controversial social issues — things like fights over diversity, equity and inclusion programming, eliminating abortion access, limiting transgender youths’ access to gender-affirming care, paddling school children with disabilities and controlling classroom conversations on gender and race.

One wonders if those fights are actually making Oklahoma a coveted place to live.

It sometimes seems like lawmakers are focusing on divisive issues to avoid having the difficult, yet substantive, conversations that really matter to average Oklahomans — and the businesses we want to recruit and retain.

A planned Panasonic battery plant at Pryor’s MidAmerica Industrial Park has been promised hundreds of millions in taxpayer support, but Gov. Kevin Stitt said company executives also wanted a commitment that state leaders would fund more day care centers, new roads and fire stations in the region.

Imagine that. An international company wants strong infrastructure for their workforce.

One would also assume businesses look at school quality and the strength of the local health care system. After all, they need employees to want to live here, and companies rely on having a healthy, educated and well-trained workforce.

For a state always striving to be Top 10, Oklahoma continues to rank among the worst in key areas. 

A recent U.S. News analysis found that we remain the 43rd best state to live in. Our state’s median income is $34,460. 

Our overall education system ranks 48th in the country. Our high school graduation rate lags compared with the national average. Our math scores are lower. Only 36% of our population has a college degree.

Our health care outcomes are also abysmally poor. On this metric, the state also comes in at No. 48. Nearly 2 in 10 Oklahomans don’t have insurance. Our obesity rate is high comparatively. 

We also have a much higher incarceration rate than other states and higher rates of violent crime.

Nearly half of Oklahoma counties are classified as child care deserts, which means there are not enough facilities to meet demand. 

Over 1 in 5 Oklahoma children live in poverty, and 30% of parents lack secure employment, according to the most recent Kids Count report

Deep discussions about child care, health care and ways to lift Oklahomans out of poverty don’t generate buzz and talking points on campaign mailers. 

Serious, productive conversations about how to actually improve education and health care outcomes are nuanced and take time. 

But we’ve reached a point where if we want nice things and reputable businesses, those conversations are necessary.

Before we start blaming our economic development officials for failing to retain and recruit companies, we need to figure out how to make ourselves Top 10 in a good way.

Because if Oklahomans aren’t willing to first invest in themselves, why would a reputable company want to invest in our state?


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Janelle Stecklein
Janelle Stecklein

Janelle Stecklein is editor of Oklahoma Voice. An award-winning journalist, Stecklein has been covering Oklahoma government and politics since moving to the state in 2014.