Innovation in economic development marketing:

How Partner Tulsa Seeks to Progress Through the Power of Community

Photo of Dave Parsell
Dave Parsell
July 21, 2023

Welcome to 1920’s America. Wartime is over. Industries are booming. Women have finally won the constitutionalized right to vote. With devastation in the rearview and the allure of prosperity looming large, the nation stood united – and ready to turn a chapter.

In a northeastern pocket of Oklahoma, that precise national spirit was potent. Tulsa – the city jovially deemed the “Oil Capital of the World” – had been introducing its residents to new peaks of opportunity. It had over 400 oil and gas companies ready to employ, plus tank manufacturers, refineries, and pipelines. It had four different railroads and two different train-lines, plus a commercial airport all of its own.

Cushioned with newfound expendable income, its locals could frequent furniture stores or buy into high fashion. They could dine in restaurants or imbibe in speakeasies or get whisked away by motion pictures. The city was as possibility-ridden as it was alive – and that energy was even more marked in one neighborhood north of the Frisco railroads.

The Greenwood District.

In 1921, it was home to almost 10,000 African-Americans – and fueled by a dynamic air of commerce. As Josie Pickens writes for Ebony, it had “banks, hotels, cafés, clothiers, movie theaters, and contemporary homes.” It had indoor plumbing. It had better schools.

Called “Black Wall Street” for its self-propelling entrepreneurialism and output, Greenwood was more than just a beacon of success – it was an inspiration.

Until, in under 48 hours, it was destroyed.

The Darkness

An accusation. A scuffle. A two-day rampage without mercy.

The Tulsa Race Massacre began with a white teenager’s claim of impropriety and ended with hundreds killed, thousands imprisoned, and the entire Greenwood District up in flames.

Planes flew overhead, dropping bombs of kerosene. Fires raged below, burning homes and stores. Black men, women, and children were rounded up and detained. Years of steps forward were pulverized into ash.

The Reflection

In Oklahoma classrooms, students learn about land rushes and the day, in 1907, when their state became a state. They learn that Guthrie had been their capital until 1910, and they learn that Oklahoma City – a faster-growing region – had been its replacement.

Students are taught about the intricacies of Oklahoma’s history, but for decades upon decades, they weren’t taught about Tulsa. Of course, they’d heard of its vibrancy. They’d learned of its growth. But the horrors that took place in 1921 – comprehensively wiping out one of the nation’s fastest blooming neighborhoods – were never part of the lesson plan.

In 2002, the state vowed to change that, enacting new standards for classroom curricula. But teachers, lacking the practical guidance they needed, were slow to integrate them.

Nearly two decades later, with the eyes of the nation (thanks to HBO’s Watchmen) paying attention, the state tried again. This time, it had the Education Department build out lessons for every age, ensuring students across the board were taught the real history – unabridged.

“We have to teach this and face the ugliness,” the state Education Department decreed, “of what we’ve been too ashamed to talk about in the past.”

After a century of concealment, it was time for Tulsa to take accountability. It was time for residents to understand, reflect, and march forward – as one.

The Beginning

But beyond the classroom, Tulsa’s economic development – a long way from the booming 1920’s – was still reeling from the past. The city’s residents, dealing with the after-effects of unbalanced opportunity, had been weighted down by circumstance.

There was rampant disparity. There was limited mobility. There was a deep-seated air of mistrust. From citizens unengaged to public organizations incohesive, the path for Tulsa to meet its full-force potential seemed constantly interrupted.

Left unchanged, the city would keep breeding inequality. So, hopeful leadership set out to change it.

Merging five public entities (the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development, Tulsa Industrial Authority, Tulsa Parking Authority, Economic Development Commission, and Tulsa Development Authority) into one purpose-built organization, PartnerTulsa was born.

Its goal was to streamline opportunity in the present while holding space for the profound trauma of the past. Its vision was to foster shared prosperity and racial equity – using the ingenuity that the community had always had inside it.

The Vision

When PartnerTulsa emerged onto the scene, its first order of business wasn’t attracting outside attention. It was rectifying the apprehension that its residents, faced with another bureaucratic entity, rightfully had.

And that meant it had to reintroduce itself.

Leaving the era of red tape and needless complexity behind, the organization enacted a mission that was oriented around access. Making its ambitions inclusive and its opportunities local. Making its programs attainable and its identity, according to Executive Director Kian Kamas, “very clearly recognizable.”

On the operations side, PartnerTulsa developed four core branches for city improvement: Community Revitalization, Affordable Housing, Living Wages, and Healthy Food Access.

On the branding side, Kamas and her team knew it wouldn’t be enough to simply mimic the practices of other organizations. Before they were economic developers, they were community developers – so in order to earn buy-in from their audience, they’d have to put their money where their mouth was.

They’d have to prove they weren’t just another uninvested entity. They’d have to differentiate themselves at every turn.

The Strategy

First, it was the name.

Officially, the organization was created as the Tulsa Authority for Economic Opportunity – but that calling card was a mouthful even for internal employees. So, instead of weaving a marketing program around a name that didn’t quite fit the mission, they adopted an alternative.

Enter: PartnerTulsa – a name that hit at the root of their vision without asking readers to decipher bureaucratic lingo. A name that encompassed their collaborative mentality (“we do everything in partnership with others,” Kamas notes) and their prioritization of the local community.

Once established, the new name set the tone for the rest of the marketing strategy: promoting shared equity by bulldozing barriers to entry. Pulling residents in instead of keeping them out.

The Execution

With the name checked off, Kamas and her team turned to the website – and that’s where they doubled-down.

Clean. Clear. Simple. “Let’s get our audience familiar with us,” she explains the goal. “Let’s get them aware of where they can find the resources” so they can discover more, quicker. So they can leverage the programming – without the headache.

But with that need for simplicity, the idea of merely reskinning past entity websites – making them “look prettier,” as Kamas describes – was a non-starter. To convey the right messaging the right way, they’d have to start from scratch. And that meant an entirely new approach.

Instead of throwing paragraphs of technical language onto the page, they committed to crafting narratives that were engaging and approachable. Instead of getting lost in the sheer amount of information they could include, they committed to selecting the pieces their audience actually needed – and wanted – to see.

From the color scheme (“black and white and tan, with blue to add some vibrancy”) to the imagery (“human-focused, to juxtapose the clean and simple brand”), every aspect of PartnerTulsa’s online presence was chosen with access in mind. And that philosophy was also extended to how they presented data.

“There was a real gap in the data that local industry and small businesses had to make conscientious and informed business decisions,” Kamas explains. “And the data they did have could be very difficult to digest.”

To counter that challenge and bring meaningful, easy-to-understand insights to their audience, they searched for an innovative approach to data storytelling. They landed on Localintel tools.

“Localintel’s tools are intuitive and easy-to-use for anyone looking to better understand their customers, competitors, the labor market, or other factors that impact business operations,” Kamas tells us. And since PartnerTulsa is all about empowering local business and talent, that type of customizable, ready-to-go intel was invaluable.

Case in point: the ‘Explore Regional Data’ tool. Integrated into the site’s industry-specific pages, it allows residents to quickly assess the infrastructure available – and visualize how and where they fit.

The Future

There aren’t enough right’s to ever begin righting the (innumerable, untold) wrong’s of the Tulsa Race Massacre, and the city – through its residents – will unfairly bear that weight. But while the past is immobile, the future is much easier to mold. So PartnerTulsa is determined to equip its community with the tools they need for molding.

Because throughout the city’s history, from the burgeoning 1920’s to the innovative strides being made today, it’s been the people of Tulsa who’ve kept its spirit alive.

Hard-working. Forward-thinking. Resilient. Tulsans have continued to propel themselves forward and cultivate a distinct nucleus of energy and culture. Which is precisely why the focus of PartnerTulsa isn’t on attracting outside corporate interest, but on further empowering what’s already inside.

“The ultimate goal,” Kamas emphasizes, “is increasing economic opportunity throughout the city.” But how well they can nurture local industry, business, and talent comes down to more than just their programming. It comes down to their marketing strategy – and whether they’re building trust.

First came the name. Then came the website. Now, their attention is on outreach.

From more conventional channels like newsletters and social media to fresh tactics, like direct emails to specific groups, Kamas and her team have a lot under their sleeve. But what sets their ambitious game-plan apart is that every aspect of it is built on authenticity. “I’m a big fan of personal relationships,” she says. “Not just hitting send on something, but communicating with meaning.”

And while it’s still early days for PartnerTulsa’s strategy, its team has high hopes for impact. Because beyond just offering locals that meaningful, intentional communication, what it’s really offering is the chance to grow in a city that’s now more united than ever – and ready to grow with them.

Removing complexity. Increasing equity. Earning trust. By working to give every Tulsan business and individual the support they need to flourish, PartnerTulsa is betting on the power of accessibility. But more than that, it’s betting on the power of community.

After a history marked by injustice, inequality, and immobility, it’s betting that the key to meeting its full-force potential has been inside it all along.

We trust you’ve found this article useful. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to us should you have any questions.

Customer stories

See how innovative economic development organizations are turning their website from good to great with Localintel.
View all stories