The new Jenks: small-town-feel, big-city style The evolution of Jenks turned sleepy town into prosperous suburb

Jun 30, 2016

Posted: Sunday, June 26, 2016 12:00 am | Updated: 12:33 pm, Mon Jun 27, 2016.

JENKS — Driving across a narrow, pot-holed bridge with a sewer plant on one side and an industrial sand pit on the other, Randy Ewing wasn’t terribly impressed with this little town when he first arrived for a job interview in 1981. Barely 5,800 people lived here, and during the day most of them went across the river in Tulsa to go to work or to go shopping.

“You could have fired off a machine gun in the middle of downtown and not hit anybody,” Ewing remembers. “It was deserted.”

Jenks, as far as he could tell, had only two things going for it: a highly respected school system, which was drawing development to south Tulsa where people could live in the district without actually moving to Jenks; and a clear dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Jenks wanted to change, as evidenced by the fact that officials conducted a nationwide search for a new city manager before finding Ewing in Greenville, South Carolina.

“It’s not that they wanted me necessarily,” says Ewing, who is now retired after serving as city manager until 2007. “But they wanted somebody with the background and the experience to grow the community. That was a real tipping point for Jenks — that decision to not be content with the way things were.”

Then-Mayor Wayne Parker Jr. was Ewing’s age — mid-30s, at the time — and marked a generational shift in the town’s leadership. Although he faced some resistance from older members of the City Council, Parker gave the new city manager a simple, two-part mission statement.

“What we want you to do,” Parker told Ewing, “is make Jenks look like it belongs with its school system,” meaning a first-class district deserved to have a first-class town.

“But,” Parker said, “we don’t want to be remade into the image of south Tulsa. We want to keep that small-town flavor that people like about Jenks.”

Over the next 35 years — from that moment to this very day — every public investment, every zoning change, every proposal to the planning commission has been filtered through those two guiding principles, Ewing says: Always striving to make the town worthy of its school system but trying to keep a small-town feel. And it has transformed sleepy little Jenks into Tulsa’s most prosperous suburb.

‘High expectations’

A few years before Ewing came to town, Public Service Co. of Oklahoma built a power plant on the Jenks side of the Arkansas in the mid-1970s, boosting the ad valorem tax base and pumping a new revenue stream into the local schools.

Jenks schools were already building a reputation for high academic performance, and the new money paid for expansions and improvements to serve the growing population of south Tulsa. The school improvements, in turn, lured more homebuyers into the district, driving up property values and increasing tax revenues for the schools even more.

By the 1980s, it seemed to be a self-sustaining cycle.

“There was a culture of high expectations established,” says Jenks Superintendent Stacey Butterfield, who started as a classroom teacher for the district 27 years ago. “And we have never wavered from that.”

When parents move into a district specifically for the schools, they are going to demand a lot from the education system, Butterfield says. But they also are going to be willing to invest a lot in the system — supporting bond issues, volunteering in classrooms, holding school board members accountable and monitoring their own children’s performance.

“I can’t overstate the importance of teamwork,” Butterfield says. “In Jenks, the city, the business community, the parents — they all work together to support the schools. Everybody makes education a priority.”

The schools were drawing people into the district, but when Ewing took over in the early 1980s, most of the development was going into south Tulsa, not coming to Jenks itself.

“Jenks was on the wrong side of the river,” Ewing says. “And that wasn’t going to be easy to change.”

In fact, to trace the evolution of Jenks from “the wrong side of the river” to prosperous suburb, Ewing can offer a bullet list of milestones — two pages long, single-spaced, including the construction of a new waste-water treatment plant in 1982 and re-branding downtown as “The Antiques Capital of Oklahoma.” But one of the first and most important milestones came in 1982, when Ewing — then just a year into his tenure as city manager — proposed a third-penny sales tax.

“I’ve got to have some capital here,” Ewing told Mayor Parker, who hesitated to put the issue on a ballot. “We can’t do anything without capital.”

Voters approved it, but just barely. And the tax remained controversial for years afterward. Nonetheless, it gave Ewing the funding he needed to begin improving sewer lines and other city services, which in turned allowed Jenks to attract more housing developments.

“It was a start,” Ewing says. “A good start.”

‘Success breeds success’

By the mid-1980s, Tulsa wanted to install an instrument landing system at Jones-Riverside airport, but the growing population of Jenks didn’t particularly want the noise that would come with more air traffic. It took some complicated negotiations to reach an arrangement that both communities found mutually beneficial. Tulsa would get an ILS and Jenks would get a county golf course to serve as a buffer between housing developments and the airport.

South Lake Golf Course, in turn, attracted more housing developments to Jenks and became one of the amenities that impressed executives from Kimberly Clark, who brought a major manufacturing center to Jenks in 1990 and have since invested nearly $1 billion in the facility.

Kimberly Clark’s presence helped bring the Creek Turnpike through Jenks in 1992 and helped Ewing finally win a 14-year battle to secure funding for a new four-lane bridge to connect downtown Jenks to south Tulsa in 1995. The improved access, in turn, helped pave the way for Jenks to host the Oklahoma Aquarium, which opened in 2003 and became one of the region’s biggest tourist attractions, drawing more than 400,000 visitors a year. And the aquarium helped to spark retail developments like the River Walk, Village on Main and, most recently, the upcoming Simon outlet mall.

“Success breeds success,” Ewing says. “One thing builds on another.”

In a completely separate conversation, far out of Ewing’s earshot, developer Donny Williamson repeats exactly the same sentiment about Jenks: “Success breeds success.” Other investors doubted that the town was ready for an upscale mixed-use project the size of Jenks Landing, a $39 million combination of apartments, retail and restaurants that will break ground soon at 111th Street and U.S. 75. But research convinced Williamson that Jenks was more than ready.

“When you look at the numbers and compare Jenks with the rest of the state,” Williamson says, “the difference is staggering. It’s really amazing how much stronger Jenks is, economically.”

Consider, for example, median household income: $84,758 in Jenks compared to $46,235 statewide, according to the U.S. Census. Or the unemployment rate: 2.3 percent in Jenks compared to 4.7 percent statewide. Or education levels: 46.8 percent of people in Jenks have a bachelor’s degree compared to 23.8 percent statewide.

“You have a city that has been focusing on education and quality of life for a very long time now,” says Williamson, who has twin 16-year-old sons attending Jenks High School. “And it has drawn really successful people who want to live there and who want to raise their families there. I think it is a community that has had the right priorities.”

Crossing the Jenks bridge now, drivers will notice the Oklahoma Aquarium sitting about where a waste-water lagoon used to be. And the new $22 million Flying Tee golf complex stands more or less in the spot where Ewing would have seen nothing but a sand pit 35 years ago. If he could have imagined it all back then, he would have been impressed. Very impressed.