The Norman economic picture has been somewhat helter skelter, if you watch monthly sales tax data. One month, it’s strongly up, only to be followed with the next month strongly down. The question is why?

In my opinion, misplaced economic development priorities of the city, along with university job slashing, are roots of the problem.

Two interesting articles caught my eye this weekend. The Washington Post’s “We’ve just lived through the greatest period of restaurant growth in U.S. history. Here’s why it’s ending” and the Journal Record’s “College enrollment declines could hurt Oklahoma economy.” Oddly, they have a common thread and are relevant to Norman’s economy.

The Post article, reflecting on the decline of the restaurant industry, states, “The party is over and most of us are blithely unaware.” They cite many causative factors but, the one that stuck out to me was regarding student loan debt. Those under 35 “may be saddled with student loans” and, therefore, have decreased spending power.

Restaurants and student spending are vital components of Norman’s economy.

In The Journal Record article, we learn “higher education enrollment in Oklahoma has declined by more than 15 percent since 2011.” That’s 40,000 students per year, and “Oklahoma’s support for higher education has dropped from an inflation adjusted $1.306 billion in 2008 to $774 million in 2018. That is a 40 percent decrease.”

I doubt this is a coincidence, and here’s why.

The Journal Record goes on to say, consequently, “Schools have had to raise tuition, pricing many students out of the market, and that may be the biggest factor behind the state’s declining enrollment numbers.”

I would have to agree. I believe skyrocketing tuition costs have left the average Oklahoman simply unable to afford college.

The impact is felt locally. As the University of Oklahoma cuts jobs, it has a direct affect on Norman’s economy. One local restauranteur told me they had 11 of 19 Christmas parties cancel last year as the university continued its job slashing tirade.

Politically, on a national level, there is no doubt we should be focused on reducing student debt. In addition, the state of Oklahoma should focus on funding higher education and reducing tuition costs. Locally, Norman should be focused on, one, quality-of-life infrastructure and, two, reminding state and national leaders that increased funding for higher education and decreased tuition costs are good for Norman’s economy.

In summary, want an answer for Norman’s economic woes? Let’s increase higher education funding and decrease tuition costs. Let’s invest in quality-of-life infrastructure to decrease flooding, littering and water pollution.

Let’s invest in infrastructure to enhance existing neighborhoods improve water quality, fix streets, expand trails, expand parks, plant trees, enhance landscaping, expand public art, provide public transportation and enhance the fine arts. Let’s solve the problem of Norman being the worst Big 12 town for live music.

The state of Oklahoma needs to do what’s right by funding higher education and decreasing tuition costs. The city of Norman needs to do what’s right by using quality-of-life infrastructure investment as its economic development tool. If this were to happen, I would predict Norman’s helter skelter economic picture might level out.

Joe Carter, DVM,

Oklahoma Equine Hospital

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