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Inside Tulsa’s underdog bid for Tesla’s next big factory

May 29, 2020, 4:00 PM UTC

On May 20, Tulsa residents woke up to a strange sight. The Golden Driller, a 75-foot statue that has stood as a tribute to the city’s fossil-fuel legacy for more than half a century, now sported a belt buckle reading “Tesla,” the electric-car maker’s logo on its chest, and a new face that vaguely resembled that of Tesla CEO Elon Musk.

The revamp was part of a charm offensive from an informal network of Tulsa residents and businesspeople hoping to persuade Tesla to build a huge factory there. It’s one small element of the small city’s multi-front, underdog effort to nab the plant, perhaps as many as 10,000 jobs, and priceless bragging rights.

A city’s effort to attract a new factory is usually a matter of quiet, closed-door negotiations, but Tesla has attracted much broader community involvement. Tulsa’s efforts began back in March, when Musk tweeted: “Scouting locations for the Cybertruck Gigafactory. Will be central USA.” Tesla’s Cybertruck is the carmaker’s unusual take on a pickup truck, which attracted more than 250,000 refundable deposits from would-be buyers after its unveiling last year.

A mysterious website, Bigfuckingfield.com, quickly appeared to pitch Tulsa as the site for the factory. From its risqué address to its sardonic, meme-y content, the site was carefully aimed at both Musk himself and the media, which has highlighted the site in a number of articles.

The mind behind Bigfuckingfield.com, it turns out, is Jacob Johnson, cofounder of Tulsa-based marketing agency Gitwit Creative. Johnson’s efforts have since grown into an informal network known as Tulsa for Tesla, which also helped pull together the Driller’s revamp. (The new face, Johnson emphasizes, is just a temporary decal.)

“The initial goal [of the website] was just to get on the radar of Tesla’s decision-makers,” says Johnson. It may have worked. There’s no sign Tulsa was in consideration in March, but on May 15, anonymous sources told the Associated Press and other news outlets that Tesla was considering just two sites for the new factory: Tulsa and Austin.

Tulsa may not seem a likely tech-hub candidate, but the city’s boosters can cite a number of points in its favor. Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum points to recent investments in amenities like the Gathering Place, an expansive public park, and a huge $918 million program called Vision Tulsa that includes money for the arts in addition to infrastructure.

Culture is often a major factor when innovative companies choose where to locate, because it’s key to recruiting top talent. Tyler Moore, a professor in the University of Tulsa’s cybersecurity program, was born and raised in the Tulsa area, then left for more than a decade before returning recently.

“Tulsa has a lot more to offer young professionals than it did in 2004,” Moore says. “The downtown’s revitalized. It’s a lot more interesting than it used to be.”

Tulsa is also competitive with Austin on more fundamental points, including a strong manufacturing talent pool (and plenty of big fields). Bynum says a large American Airlines maintenance facility and an array of energy industry manufacturers have been magnets for skilled labor. Though Tulsa’s metro area population is under 1 million compared with Austin’s 2.2 million, Tulsa currently has nearly 54,000 manufacturing workers, compared with 64,000 in Austin.

As for the irony of repainting a statue of an oil derrick worker to resemble a famously anti–fossil fuel CEO, Bynum says Tulsa’s past as “The Oil Capital of the World” has actually helped fuel energy innovation, including a growing alternative energy industry. Wind, for instance, now provides more than a third of Oklahoma’s energy needs.

“Oil and gas really grew here as a new energy source,” says Bynum, “growing out of an era that was reliant on steam and coal. We regard electricity as just another extension of that continuum.”

A competitor, or just leverage?

Despite those strengths, though, there’s widespread suspicion that Tulsa isn’t really in the running for Tesla’s new Gigafactory at all.

“Most likely this is Austin, and Tulsa is a stalking horse,” says Gene Munster, a longtime Tesla analyst and investor at Loup Ventures. Munster and others believe Tesla leaked Tulsa’s candidacy to news outlets not because it’s a serious contender, but as leverage for extracting tax breaks or other incentives from Austin. Tesla declined to comment on this assessment, or on the selection process as a whole.

Even leaving aside culture and cachet, there’s a laundry list of points in Austin’s favor. Austin is already the home of Tesla’s Autopilot chip engineering team, and Samsung manufactures the Autopilot chips there. Musk’s other company, SpaceX, also has operations in south Texas, so locating in Austin could save the multitasking CEO time. Austin is also better located for shipping Cybertrucks or other vehicles to Europe.

“I would put the odds at 30 to 1 Austin now,” says Matt Joyce, an independent Tesla analyst and investor. “The only way that 3% chance goes Tulsa’s way is if they offer a deal too good to turn down.”

Bynum wouldn’t comment on Tulsa’s incentive offers to Tesla, but it’s a safe bet he’s pulling every lever available, and then some. In Oklahoma, those include tax increment financing zones, which let cities and counties recycle property and other taxes into loans and grants for companies; and the state’s Quality Jobs program, which gives companies cash payments of up to 5% on new payrolls for up to 10 years.

Cynthia Rogers, an economist studying incentive packages at the University of Oklahoma, is generally critical of such giveaways of taxpayer money. “The problem is if Tulsa empties their pockets for this, if they overpay,” she says, citing the infamous example of Wisconsin’s so-far meager returns on a $4 billion incentive package to electronics manufacturer Foxconn.

But even Rogers allows that Tesla is a different animal. Its glitz would radically reshape how the world thinks of Tulsa, something that’s hard to put a price tag on.

That’s why, even if Tulsa doesn’t come from behind to beat Austin, Johnson, the marketer, thinks just being in the race is huge for the city: “The fact that we got validated on the national stage as a competitive city for this is a huge win. And Tesla’s not done building factories after this one. If we were able to get this deep in the consideration process, that’s not going away.”

The verdict on Tulsa’s efforts should be clear soon. Production of the Cybertruck is scheduled to begin in late 2021, and observers expect the site for the new factory to be announced in a matter of months.

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