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Train of change

Vanessa Hall-Harper brings new enthusiasm to her city council position

Vanessa Hall-Harper

Melissa Lukenbaugh

The O’Jays’ “Give the People What They Want” blasted from an SUV, serenading the small crowd of protesters at 750 E. Pine St. on the afternoon of March 25. The soul anthem, featuring a bridge asserting “people need food to eat,” surged on repeat, bouncing between the walls of neighboring George Carver Middle School and the Pine Street Christian Church while passing cars laid on their horns. At the back of the SUV, which was adorned with a large sticker that read, “VANESSA HALL HARPER: UNBOUGHT AND UNBOSSED,” stood Hall-Harper herself, passing out signs to the 30-plus protesters who braved the brisk spring chill to voice their opposition to a planned Dollar General store.

“I love my city councilor,” a man yelled at an evening news reporter. “She made the signs, and all we had to do was show up!” 

Before honking, some of the passing traffic would slow to investigate the protest signs. “My Children Will Die 10 Years Sooner Than Yours Because We Live In North Tulsa,” read one. “80% of Dollar General Store Products Contain Hazardous Chemicals i.e. LEAD,” read another. More to the point, a sign that said: “Dollar General You Are Not A Welcome Guest.”

One simply stated, “Hell To The Naw.”

By a Google Maps count, North Tulsa—bounded by I-244 to the south, Highway 169 to the east, Mohawk Boulevard to the north, and Tisdale Parkway to the west—is already home to seven Family Dollar stores and five Dollar Generals, including two within a two-mile radius of this planned Dollar General. Many North Tulsans, including new District 1 City Councilor Hall-Harper, are sick of the poor health that comes with cheap food—and they’re making it clear that they don’t want any more discount chain stores in their community.

Hall-Harper defeated District 1 Councilor Jack Henderson last November, ending his run as the city’s longest-serving councilor with a record 14 years of service. A recent survey by The Frontier showed that many who voted for Hall-Harper did so because of their desire for a proper grocery store in North Tulsa, which was one of her platform promises. To Hall-Harper’s mind, part of bringing quality groceries to the community means opposing anything less. So when the community learned—via Hall-Harper’s devout attendance of Tulsa Development Authority (TDA) meetings—that developers planned two discount stores, a Family Dollar and a Dollar General, to be built within one month and a couple of miles of each other, they were outraged.

“This is the time for change. It starts locally. We have to stand together, we have to work together, we have to fight together.” —Kristi Williams

Kristi Williams, a local activist who spearheaded the effort to rename downtown Tulsa’s Brady Street (now M.B. Brady Street) and its namesake arts district, remembers attending a community planning meeting last year in which North Tulsans packed out a meeting room at the Rudisill Regional Library and stated clearly, with representatives of Family Dollar standing among them, that they did not want any more dollar stores built within the boundaries of their community. 

But on January 5, Hall-Harper attended TDA’s first meeting of 2017
and noticed a couple of dismaying agenda items:

l. Discussion, consideration and vote to approve a Resolution authorizing the conveyance of land for the proposed Family Dollar store located at 1553 North Peoria Avenue Tulsa, Oklahoma, by Antonio Perez and Eugenia Perez to Triple C Development, LLC, to be devoted only to, and in accordance with, the uses specified in the Urban Renewal Plan/Unity Heritage Neighborhoods Plan.

m. Discussion, consideration and vote to allow North Peoria TIF funds to be used for public infrastructure improvements to the proposed Family Dollar Store located at 1553 North Peoria Avenue, Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Before she could stand up and speak in opposition to those, another item came up for discussion—one that blindsided her completely:

i. Discussion, consideration and vote approving a Resolution authorizing entering into a Redevelopment Agreement with Rupe Helmer Group Inc., for the sale and redevelopment of TDA land located at 750 East Pine Street, Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Though Hall-Harper’s testimony against the proposed Family Dollar store staved off its approval, she found the meeting disheartening.

“The representative from the developer said, ‘Well, no one else is coming. So you all need to accept (this)’—that’s basically what she said. ‘You all need to take what you can get,’” Hall-Harper said. “And so they play on ignorance, and that’s why I think our leadership is so important, that we have engaged leaders who, when hearing about these types of projects, come back to the community and get the community engaged and listen to the voice of the community.”

And while she had seen item “i.” listed on the TDA’s agenda for that day, she had no idea, until nearly the end of the discussion, that the redevelopment being proposed was for a Dollar General. She said that she—and the community she represents—had been deliberately misled. Hall-Harper spoke in opposition to the proposal, but it passed with only one board member, Carl Bracy, casting a dissenting vote.

Hall-Harper took the information she received at the TDA meeting back to the citizens she represents. They quickly organized, setting up a petition at Change.org and organizing protests on the site of the proposed development. She isn’t against the development of any and all dollar stores, but Hall-Harper said her community is already oversaturated with stores that offer domestic goods and prepackaged, processed foods.

North Tulsa residents say the processed foods readily available at discount stores, combined with a lack of fresh foods, contribute to their shortened life expectancies. (North Tulsans die, on average, 10 years before residents south of I-244—a chilling statistic Tulsa’s new mayor has promised to combat.) They especially don’t want to see additional processed foods made readily available to the Carver Middle School students, who attend class right next to the proposed Dollar General.

The Change.org petition, which had 250 supporters at last count, urges the TDA to reject any further proposals for Dollar General or Family Dollar stores in the area, and to prevent the development of the one they approved in January. Most of the supporters who commented on the online petition echo the sentiment that North Tulsa is saturated with dollar stores and that what residents really want—and need—are grocery stores, along with other quality retail developments. 

“If you go on Rupe Helmer’s website, you can see they have some beautiful developments,” Hall-Harper said. “But all they want to build in North Tulsa is a damn Dollar General.” 

Many residents also worry about hazardous materials contained within the products on the shelves of discount stores. A 2015 report by Campaign for Healthier Solutions estimated that 81 percent of products from four of the country’s largest discount-store chains—Dollar General, Dollar Tree, Family Dollar (now owned by Dollar Tree), and 99 Cents Only—“contained at least one hazardous chemical above levels of concern, compared to existing voluntary toy standards and mandatory toy packaging and electronics standards.”

The study found that 38 percent of products tested contained PVC, 32 percent contained phthalates, and 71 percent contained one or more hazardous chemical at levels that exceeded the recommendation for safety. While many national retailers are phasing out products that contain known toxins, most dollar stores are not.

The report continues: 

Many communities served by dollar stores are predominantly communities of color or low-income communities that are already disproportionately exposed to chemical hazards and health effects linked to chemical exposures. Residents in these areas often have reduced access to quality medical care, fresh and healthy food, and public services, which are critical to overall health and to withstanding chemical exposures. In many of these communities, dollar stores are often the only store selling essential household goods, including food. These factors place a higher level of responsibility on dollar stores to ensure they are not selling products that contain harmful chemicals.

Additionally, North Tulsa residents worry that too many discount stores will actually depress development in their communities, rather than ignite it. 

One petition commenter wrote: 

A historical area such as North Tulsa needs shops that reflect the aspirations of the community and represent a standard of dignified class. Not to be saturated with discount stores that do more to deplete the community as opposed to reinvest into it. Locally owned shops that are centered upon the health and economic advancement of the citizens of North Tulsa.

Protestors at site of proposed Dollar General on March 25Hall-Harper says the community’s demand for a quality grocery store illustrates the need for the African American Affairs Commission (AAAC), a hard-won project that finally came to fruition after Hall-Harper’s election to Tulsa City Council in November 2016. 

Hall-Harper began battling for the creation of the AAAC in the summer of 2015. Tulsa’s Hispanic and Native American populations had their own commissions for decades, but an African American commission had never been established. Hall-Harper believed the ACCC would efficiently communicate the African American community’s concerns to City Hall. 

When then-Mayor Dewey Bartlett announced the AAAC would be established, after months of calls and emails from Hall-Harper and others, he said it would be staffed by the mayor, city councilors, and Tulsa City commissioners. Although city charter dictates that only the mayor can make appointments to boards, authorities, and commissions, Hall-Harper and proponents of the AAAC worried it would be established without the involvement of anyone who had requested its creation. 

Hall-Harper penned a letter to Mayor Bartlett, which was printed in The Tulsa Voice in March 2016.

She wrote: 

After two peaceful protests at City Hall and letters of recommendation in favor of creating an AAAC from the other commissions, we were unofficially informed that an AAAC will be created. However, Mayor Bartlett is attempting to create an AAAC without the input and involvement of the citizens who requested it. We are totally being left out of the process and we are not being allowed to serve on the commission.  All we want is to give the African American community a voice of action directly to City Hall and Tulsa County. We cannot have a healthy community if we are not at the table when decisions are being made concerning us. We are tired of being ignored!! The time for action is now. The African American community deserves it!

In the face of community opposition to Bartlett’s proposed formation of the AAAC, the project fell dormant.

Within a few months of the election of Mayor G.T. Bynum and Hall-Harper’s win over Henderson as city councilor, the creation of the AAAC was announced. Hall-Harper says Bynum has committed to conferring with the community about what organizations and interests the 23 members of the commission should represent. 

At the announcement of the commission earlier this year, Bynum praised Hall-Harper for her steadfast persistence in seeing the commission to fruition.

“It will allow our community to have the type of dialogue that we need to have to move forward as one city,” Bynum said.

The mayor is in the process of accepting applications for potential commissioners, although there currently is no deadline for applications.

“There hasn’t been a Title V commission created in some time, so no one in the city, or in the community, is familiar with that process,” Hall-Harper said. “And so we want to get it done, certainly as soon as possible, but we want to make sure it’s done right.”

Another campaign promise Hall-Harper is delivering on is the development of a grocery store for North Tulsa. 

After her election, Hall-Harper called Rose Washington, executive director of the Tulsa Economic Development Commission.

“I need help,” she said. “We have to get a grocery store out here.” 

Washington encouraged her to visit a newly opened Sav-A-Lot on Southwest Boulevard near W. 41st St.

Hall-Harper nearly dismissed the idea. There’s already a Sav-A-Lot in North Tulsa, and residents have been underwhelmed. They complain the store is small, the selection is limited, and it doesn’t carry the brand names stocked on the shelves of other stores. So, Hall-Harper was skeptical. 

“It took me a while to get out there,” she said. 

When she finally visited the West Tulsa store, her mind was changed. It is clean and brightly lit, with a selection of fresh fruits and vegetables on display at the front. Fresh meats, cut by an in-house butcher and bearing low price tags, line the back wall. Products feature both brand-name labels and generic ones, and, though the store is small, Hall-Harper saw plenty of diversity in the products sold.

“I called [Washington] back and said, ‘If I’m wrong I’ll admit it. I see what you’re talking about.’”

Then she had to sell the store on North Tulsa.

She called Honor Capital, the developer of the West Tulsa Sav-A-Lot, and requested a meeting. Honor Capital is a collaboration of eight individuals, seven of whom are veterans and graduated from the Naval Academy in 2006. As they were completing their service commitments, they came together with the desire to go into business together—doing what, they weren’t sure.

“We went to my dad, who is a successful entrepreneur, and basically said, ‘We want to start a company, but we don’t know what we want to do,’” said Jamie Allen, Honor Capital’s vice president of finance. “And he said, ‘Let’s look for a problem to solve.’” 

They found food deserts.

Intending to bring grocery stores to communities lacking them, Honor Capital focused on the communities they were each from—Columbia, South Carolina; Tulsa, Oklahoma.; and Winfield, Kansas—and developed three prototype Sav-A-Lot stores. The Columbia store is nestled within a housing project and serves a predominantly African American customer base. Shoppers at the West Tulsa store are mostly white and working class, and the Winfield store serves a rural community. Honor Capital, which owns all of its stores and licenses the Sav-A-Lot brand, thought it could emulate those three types of stores in other communities. 

Hall-Harper wanted one of those communities to be hers. 

“I kind of broached the topic with [Honor Capital],” said Hall-Harper, “and they were like, ‘We wanted to come to North Tulsa last year.’ And I said, ‘Huh? What do you mean?’ and they said, ‘Jack Henderson, he was the first one we reached out to, and he wouldn’t return our calls. We scheduled a meeting with him and he wouldn’t show up to the meeting.’ ”

Allen confirmed that Henderson no-showed to a meeting they had set up at City Hall, but said, “I’m not sure that affected anything. It didn’t slow us down in any way.”

Honor Capital plans to open stores in 12 new locations in 2017, including Altus, Shawnee, and Oklahoma City. The North Tulsa store, which will likely be located at the George Kaiser Family Foundation-owned Peoria-Mohawk Business Park at 36th Street North and Peoria Avenue, is one of 20 Honor Capital plans to open in 2018. The company is currently working through the city’s zoning and planning processes.

When Allen told Hall-Harper that Honor Capital would love to open a store in North Tulsa, she replied, “Well, I need four. I’d like two in 2018 and two in 2020.”

Hall-Harper’s tenacity has produced positive results, but her zeal has recently landed her in hot water.

Hall-Harper has claimed to be chair of the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce’s (GCC) membership committee, a 12-member committee designed to give voice to the 100-plus general members of the GCC. However, Rebecca Marks-Jimerson, the board director, said the GCC does not recognize Hall-Harper as such.

On February 6, Hall-Harper emailed members of the GCC to inform them of a special meeting to discuss the amendment of bylaws—an action for which she had no authority. That email resulted in a temporary restraining order from the GCC board, with whom Hall-Harper is now in mediation.

For this story, two members of GCC’s board were reached for comment, but each requested to remain off-record while the matter is in mediation.

“That’s one of the easiest things you can do,” Williams said. “As long as you have a strategic plan behind your protesting, it works.”

Despite recent hurdles with the board of directors of the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce, residents of North Tulsa are excited about new leadership. Hall-Harper’s openness and insistence that her constituents be informed of and involved in decision-making has inspired a surge of community activism.

“Vanessa is engaging this community,” Williams said. “I think now is the opportunity for people to stand up and get engaged and really take a part in the process that is going on.”

Part of that process is demonstrating and protesting. North Tulsa residents have demonstrated for the creation of the African American Affairs Commission and protested the actions of the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce, the development of discount retailers, and police brutality.

“That’s one of the easiest things you can do when it comes to fighting for your community,” Williams said. “As long as you have a strategic plan behind your protesting, it works. We would have never gotten the African American Affairs Commission if we had not been out there protesting. It’s sad that we have to do it—we shouldn’t have to do it—but it’s nothing shameful.

“I have a respect for people who can stand up and do that for their community. It means they care, they want something different. This is the time for change. It starts locally. We have to stand together, we have to work together, we have to fight together.”

Williams predicted that, as the 100th anniversary of the 1921 race massacre approaches, global attention will be paid to Tulsa—especially to North Tulsa. 

“So we need to get engaged because our community is going to be what we make it,” she said. 

“Now is the time to get on this train of change.” 

For more from Mitch, read his profile of Tulsa activist Peter Von Gotcher.

For more from Holly, read her article on Tulsa’s rising homicide rate.