By the Business Facilities Staff
From the September/October 2014 issue
BF: Oklahoma has become a major hub for data centers. What are the key drivers attracting these facilities to the Sooner State?
LP: There are three things driving that: First, is available land. In the case of Google, we had MidAmerica Industrial Park, which is a great site for them. We have 70 data center locations in the state now, and the sites make a big difference. Second, we have low-cost energy. Google was able to locate next to the Grand River Dam Authority, which sells wholesale power to 18 communities; the availability of wholesale electricity was very important to Google. Third, it takes a lot of water to cool these facilities, so the availability of water resources is very important. MidAmerica Industrial Park offers great access to water.
BF: What is the state doing to expand export opportunities for Oklahoma businesses?
LP: We are continuing to create an environment in which these companies can prosper. We open them up to the idea that if they really want to expand their businesses, they’ll leave out 80 percent of the consumers in the world if they don’t pursue export opportunities. But you can’t wake up and say ‘we’ve got excess capacity so let’s start selling overseas.’ They have to be prepared and we help them get prepared.
BF: We know oil and gas is a big driver for the Oklahoma economy. Are you planning to expand the development of alternative energy?
LP: We’re way ahead of the game. About 15 percent of our energy is currently produced by wind. We’re the sixth-largest producer of wind energy in the country. That’s pretty remarkable for an oil and gas state. We feel we need a little bit of everything in our energy policy.
BF: In recent months, there have been more than 100 earthquakes in Oklahoma, many of them centered near horizontal drilling (fracking) operations. Is the state considering any new regulations to limit drilling sites or disposal of wastewater?
LP: Gov. Fallin formed a commission to investigate all of that, so our public policy right now is in a fact-finding (mode). We’re as curious and interest as anyone about drilling safely in all phases, and we’re going to continue to find out more about the impact. It seems like there are different theories about what might be causing [earthquakes], but they’re starting to narrow it down some. There isn’t interest in the Legislature in doing something more until we find out more.
BF: Moore, OK was hit by a devastating tornado in May 2013. How is the rebuilding progressing?
LP: It’s been excellent. If you know where the tornado hit—the same location that was hit by a tornado in 1999—you can see the new schools are open, buildings have been completely rebuilt and replaced. It’s a great testament to all of the people in Oklahoma, especially the people in Moore.
BF: With scientists predicting more natural disasters as a result of climate change, many states are beefing up their disaster recovery plans. Is Oklahoma considering any changes to these plans?
LP: We have a group working on a plan that we can put in place, in the event of catastrophes, that will enable us to have access to communication much more quickly and to have access to capital much more quickly—working with the banks—so economic developers can be positioned so that people can recover as quickly as possible.
BF: Several states have organized their growth strategies around targeted growth sectors. Has Oklahoma identified its targeted growth industries?
LP: States, just like individuals, want to spend their time doing things well, focusing on their strengths. Two years ago, Oklahoma decided to focus on five major ecosystems: energy, aerospace, ag/biotech, transportation and distribution, financial services and IT (including data centers). We’re very competitive in aerospace and there’s going to be some exciting news coming out of our aerospace sector in the next 30 days. We have 120,000 workers in our aerospace sector right now and that’s going to continue to grow, both on the Defense side and the commercial side.
BF: Workforce training has become a top priority, nationwide. Some states are tailoring their K-12 programs to make sure they prepare students to become skilled workers. Is Oklahoma expanding these types of programs?
LP: Our businesses, the education community and government people are talking and planning in a serious way, so we’re far ahead of most states on workforce training. We’re focused on programs. I’m part of a team that’s creating new core standards for K-12. Our goal is to graduate 100 percent of the people from high school. The goal is to have zero people drop out. The goal is to migrate 100 percent of those graduates to the next step, whether that’s a certificate, junior college, technical school or higher ed. The goal, finally, is to have zero percent of those who take that next step to have any need for remediation of any kind. The foundation of that is the K-12 experience.
BF: Your press releases say that lots of college-educated people are moving from other states to Oklahoma. What is attracting this influx? Have you changed the perception of the state?
LP: We’re working on that. Our greatest challenge is lack of awareness. Once we get people interested, they become more curious. Then they visit, they move here and they never leave. When you have a state—and two major communities in particular—that have a cost of living at 90 percent of the national average and that gives you the ability to get a job that pays above the national average, then you’ve created a scenario that allows people to pay off student loans faster, to accumulate savings faster, to put down a deposit on a home. Couple that with a low cost of living and available land at affordable prices, and that’s a pretty powerful draw.
BF: What’s your pitch to businesses that are thinking of relocating to Oklahoma?
LP: If Oklahoma was a stock traded on the stock exchange, Warren Buffet would call it an undervalued asset and he would buy it. Gov. Fallin is working hard to raise per capita income and create a better life for people here. We have pro-business policies that have put us in a great position. There are things we need to maintain and keep strong: right-to-work, tort reform, workman’s compensation reform and competitive tax rates. We need to continue to demonstrate to world, and to the business community, that we have the fiscal discipline to run a state well. We’re doing that with pension reform, something that many states don’t have the political will to do, but we’re getting it done.