Not business as usual
What is now the Tulsa Metro Chamber has a storied history that mirrors the growth of Tulsa, and today’s organization continues to shape the city.
Early Chamber leadership made the most of local oil discoveries, including the Glenn Pool oil boom in 1905, through efforts such as taking over the International Petroleum Exposition in 1928.
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Tulsa and its chamber of commerce have grown together.
What is now the 3,100-member Tulsa Metro Chamber, serving a community of more than 600,000, began as the Commercial Club, organized by a dozen or so early businessmen in 1903, when the town had slightly more than 1,000 residents.
The initial focus of that body was to bring jobs to the new town. That’s still the focus today.
“It is focused on the business environment, what creates jobs,” says Don Walker, president and CEO of Arvest Bank and chairman of the Chamber. “That is the backbone of any community.”
Mike Neal, who has been Chamber president and CEO since 2006, says, “Historically the Tulsa Metro Chamber has served as a leader in every significant community development initiative.”
That includes getting the first bridge across the Arkansas River to access the new oil fields, creating an airport in the early days of aviation, developing long-term water resources and promoting higher education facilities, along with today’s activities — pursuing more river development and improving the community’s highways and infrastructure.
“There are few chambers in the nation which can claim success for such high-profile projects,” Neal says.
A reflection of that success is the Tulsa Metro Chamber’s unprecedented recognition as the nation’s best chamber organization three out of the past five years by the American Chamber of Commerce Executives.
Walker credits Neal as “a very motivated, energetic leader” who brought some new ideas and experience in building partnerships from his years as head of Nashville’s chamber.
Neal says he saw in Tulsa a better opportunity to build on a framework of previous leaders, both professional staff and “the heavy engagement of business leaders in the Tulsa region.”
Laying the foundation
Bill Waller, who came to work for Tulsa’s chamber fresh out of college and went on to head a major financial institution and also serve as Chamber chairman, says that foundation was laid by previous leaders, notably Ralph Rhodes, the president from 1934 until 1959. A protégé, Clyde Cole, was the president for another 25 years.
“Cole thinks Rhodes is the greatest chamber man he ever knew and fashioned his career after him,” Waller says.
They never worked together, but Cole knew Rhodes from when he first began in chamber work in Guymon and Enid and visited him frequently in Tulsa.
Rhodes was especially successful in getting top business leaders to take active roles in the Chamber and the community. They not only served on boards and committees but also put up their own money for key projects.
William G. Skelly, an early-day oilman and founder of Skelly Oil, was a prime example.
Skelly headed the group that signed a “studhorse” note to buy land for Tulsa’s first airport, ground that’s still part of Tulsa International Airport. He also founded the predecessor to today’s Spartan School of Aeronautics, was instrumental in building the International Petroleum Exposition and once chartered two special trains to bring business and financial leaders from New York City to Tulsa, paying all expenses himself.
That willingness to contribute time and money was key to building the Chamber — and the city, Waller says.
“The willingness with which they put up large sums of money in the early part of city history and influence they were willing to put their necks on the line for are (among) the reasons Tulsa developed and has continued to grow,” he says.
Oil certainly boosted Tulsa, first the discovery at Red Fork just west of early-day Tulsa in 1901 and then the boom of the Glenn Pool to the south in 1905. Tulsa became the self-proclaimed “Oil Capital of the World,” a title it retained for decades until offshore drilling moved most activity elsewhere.
The Chamber made the most of it. From 1923 to 1979, Tulsa hosted periodically the International Petroleum Exposition (IPE), the world’s premier show of oil field equipment, which brought hundreds of thousands of visitors to the city.
The IPE was a sort of informal gathering of veterans of early oil activity until the Chamber took it over and formally organized it as the IPE in 1928.
But the two longest-lasting Chamber achievements dealt with water.
In 1910, the Chamber began pushing for development of navigation on the Arkansas River. That was the No. 1 priority of the Chamber for more than 60 years until the navigation terminus was dedicated at nearby Catoosa in 1971.
Along the way, the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System changed the Oklahoma landscape with a series of dams and reservoirs, including Oologah, Markham’s Ferry, Keystone and Eufaula. That not only brought navigation and commerce but also tremendous amounts of tourism from vacationers, boaters and fishermen.
The other major water project didn’t take as long to accomplish but was perhaps even more important for Tulsa’s development.
In the early part of the century, the Arkansas River was Tulsa’s water supply. But it was muddy and unreliable. The Chamber led the push for an alternative.
A prolonged and sometimes bitter campaign pitted Sand Springs businessman Charles Page and his proposal to provide water from that community’s Shell Creek reservoir against Tulsans, notably Eugene Lorton, editor-publisher of the Tulsa World, who favored building a reservoir on Spavinaw Creek, located 60 miles northeast.
The Chamber endorsed Spavinaw, and it was approved in a city election in 1919. Work began on the Spavinaw dam and the 55-mile-long water line to bring the water to Tulsa. It was a magnificent feat of engineering to lay 5-foot-tall sections of pipe in the ground, through a 2-mile tunnel in a major hill and across seven streams. But it was completed in 1924 and Lorton proclaimed, “Spavinaw water will be the product on which the future will be built.”
As part of that project, the Chamber proposed that a reservoir be built to store the Spavinaw water. Twenty-nine members donated money and two gave land to create the lake and the 2,000-acre Mohawk Park, still one of the country’s largest municipal parks.
Tulsans later voted to approve funds to repay the Chamber loans.