After clearing a legal hurdle last week, Iron Gate officials indicated they intend to move forward with the construction of the nonprofit’s new soup kitchen and food pantry in the southeast corner of downtown.
But what about everyone else? What about city and county officials, downtown business owners and the organization’s major financial supporters?
What do they think of the proposed site, a 1.5-acre lot between Seventh and Eighth streets and Elgin and Kenosha avenues?
Not much, apparently.
Emails obtained by The Frontier through the state Open Records Act show city and county officials have been working for months with downtown business owners and the philanthropic community to find alternate locations for the facility.
Those efforts included the creation of a limited liability company to purchase properties on which Iron Gate could build. The LLC, named Tulsa IDL, LLC, was created by Downtown Coordinating Council Executive Director Tom Baker and Jeff Scott, a Realtor and DCC member, according to Scott. Two properties are under contract, with the earnest money provided by downtown property owner John Bumgarner; a third property is under discussion.
Scott said neither he nor Baker have any personal stake in the land deals.
“In order to make something stick, someone had to get control of the land,” Scott said.
At the end of the day, however, the preferred site turned out to be a 1.8-acre county-owned property near the Tulsa Jail that was identified in a site study paid for by one of Iron Gate’s major funders, Zarrow Family Foundations. The parcel is on Archer Street, just west of Tulsa Day Center for the Homeless.
In fact, on Aug. 2, Keith emailed Zarrow Family Foundations Executive Director Bill Major and Reed Woods, with Stonebridge Group LLC, an attachment showing a draft preliminary site plan for the property.
“Tom (County Engineer Tom Rains) did this draft … vacating the road access. It can of course be moved west… The access road to the north behind the Day Center and possible footprint for Irongate (sic) that leads to the Jail, ” Keith wrote.
A day later, Courtney Knoblock, program director with The Anne and Henry Zarrow Foundation, emailed Shane Saunders, chairman of Iron Gate’s board of directors, to set up a meeting with Keith, Major and a public relations firm.
“Agenda: talking points and strategy for neighborhood outreach,” the email states.
On Aug. 14, just days after a private meeting that included Keith, Bumgarner, Deputy Mayor Michael Junk and Iron Gate officials, county commissioners voted to surplus the property and initiate the sale process.
Hours after the vote, Major wrote an email to Bumgarner, Keith and Scott saying he believed Iron Gate would end up choosing the county site.
“As I understand it, the Board of Iron Gate is still committed to the property at 7th (Street) and Frankfort (Avenue) until they decide otherwise,” Major wrote. “The study they undertook helped to surface the option with the county and it is being explored and developed. It would be premature for them to abandon a site that they are committed to until the other site becomes more of a sure thing.
“I don’t think it’s inappropriate for them to work through the process on this second site without giving up their initial site. That being said, when both sites are equally viable, I believe, based on the desires of the city, county, business and philanthropic community, Iron Gate will choose the county site. Any attempt to force them into a different decision would probably have the opposite effect.”
Three days later, on Aug. 17, Scott wrote to Keith and Baker to say he believed Iron Gate would purchase the county land.
“As we have discussed, it appears that Iron Gate is going to buy the property due west of the Day Center for the Homeless parking lot on the north side of Archer (Street),” Scott wrote.
Lease Might Be An Option
Iron Gate officials have declined to say whether the county site is still an option. Last month, Saunders said the nonprofit would likely bid on the county land if it became available. But in a prepared statement issued last week, he indicated the nonprofit plans to move forward with the site that was the subject of the court ruling.
“We are excited to move forward with a new facility that will be modern, convenient, larger for staff, volunteers and guests and one that will enhance the neighborhood it joins,” Saunders said.
But Keith sounded less definitive about the Seventh Street and Frankfort Avenue site, telling The Frontier this weekend that she believes the county site is still an option. And she joined Bumgarner, Baker and John 3:16 Mission President Steve Whitaker in stating that she believes the county site is the best location for the soup kitchen and food pantry.
“I think it is just a great opportunity for everybody,” Keith said. “Talking to some of the (social service) providers, it is really a burden for these folks walking across town. It needs to be close to the other services.”
Keith added that the county is open to discussing leasing the property.
Bumgarner said he continues to oppose the proposed site and that he is not the only downtown business owner who feels that way.
“I do believe the site in the northwest quadrant would be better because it would be more convenient for the beneficiaries of their services and it would blend in with the other services that are already in that quadrant,” Bumgarner said.
He added: “I think there is a universal belief that the proper location is in the northwest quadrant. The belief is held by anyone who works or owns property downtown or intends to develop downtown.”
Whitaker said the proposed county site would provide a good synergy because of its proximity to the Day Center for the Homeless and the Salvation Army.
“We would love for them to be closer to us,” Whitaker said.
Mayor G.T. Bynum, meanwhile, declined last week to say whether the city would appeal the court’s ruling or whether he preferred one site over another.
No Laws Broken
State law requires the county to get three independent appraisals of any property it plans to put up for sale. The appraisers then agree on an appraised value. The property is then listed for sale, either through an auction or a sealed-bid process, with the winning bid required to be at least 80 percent of the appraised value. The property goes to the highest bidder.
Matney Ellis worked in the Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office, where his duties included land sales, before becoming the county’s purchasing director.
He said Keith violated no laws or county regulations in discussing the county property with a potential bidder before commissioners voted to put the land up for sale. Such conversations, in fact, are not unusual, Ellis said.
“What happens on most of these occasions, you have property that is sitting there that the county is not using, and we will be approached by some individual that is basically asking, ‘Hey, would you like to sell that, because I would use it if you guys are willing,’” Matney said. “It happens all the time.”
Since the bidding process itself is open, everyone is ensured a fair opportunity to purchase the land, Matney said. More than once, he’s reminded potential bidders that as much as they might want the property or have prepared to purchase it, there are no guarantees.
“This is the way we sell it,” Matney advises prospective bidders. “But you know what? If QuikTrip wants it, I bet they outbid you.”
Long Time Coming
Iron Gate officials have been looking for a new home for more than two years. The nonprofit’s longtime home inside Trinity Episcopal Church, 501 S. Cincinnati Ave., is no longer large enough to accommodate the growing population of homeless and working poor who travel there for a meal and groceries, Iron Gate officials say.
The nonprofit first tried to build its new facility at 302 S. Peoria Ave, but the proposal sparked complaints from neighborhood residents and business owners, and the Board of Adjustment rejected Iron Gate’s application for a special exception.
Iron Gate met a similar fate when it went before the BOA to seek approval of its latest proposed site. The nonprofit appealed that decision to District Court in November.
District Judge Rebecca Nightingale ruled last week that Iron Gate falls under the category of a restaurant, clearing the way for the project to be built anywhere within the Inner Dispersal Loop without BOA approval.
Baker, the DCC executive director, said the organization — an advisory group made up of downtown business owners and other stakeholders — passed a resolution last year opposing Iron Gate’s effort to build at the Seventh Street and Frankfort Avenue site. At the same time, Baker said, the group pledged to help Iron Gate find a new location.
“We appreciate the value of the services Iron Gate provides to their clients,” Baker said. “We don’t think the site, adjacent to that (highway) on-ramp and off-ramp is in the best interests of the public safety of their clients.”
Baker noted that the city’s Downtown Area Master Plan “kind of designates for various social services, not just Iron Gate, but others” to be located in the northwest quadrant of the city. City planners, however, have repeatedly said the master plan does not designate a section of town for social service agencies, but simply describes those services as being in a particular area.
Major said Monday that Zarrow Family Foundations paid for a comprehensive site study that also tracked where Iron Gate’s clients come from. It was that study that helped identified the county property near the jail as a possible home for the new facility.
“They mapped out who was being served (and) that would definitely be an advantage on the county site,” Major said.
The study does not recommend a specific site but instead lists the pros and cons of several locations, Major said. Among the pros for the county site was that it was close to other social service agencies that provide services for the homeless.
Major stressed that Zarrow Family Foundations chose to fund the site study to give Iron Gate the information it needed to make an informed decision. The foundation has no interest in controlling where the soup kitchen and food pantry is built, Major said.
“It has always been our intent that this is a decision that the board needs to make,” he said. “We just wanted to help to make sure they had all of the information to make a decision that they could get. …It is not in our interest, nor our desire, to dictate to any nonprofit we’re giving money to exactly what they need to do.”
Iron Gate was established by parishioners of Trinity Episcopal Church, who stepped out of a Bible study to made a sandwich for someone, according to its website.
It has since become a separate entity from the church and serves more than 200,000 meals a year and tens of thousands of bags of groceries to the poor and homeless.