Ray Carter | April 14, 2023

Oklahoma economy booming thanks to existing state companies

Ray Carter

Although efforts to lure massive new businesses to Oklahoma have dominated headlines, Oklahoma is doing better than most states thanks largely to the growth of existing businesses or creation of new in-state businesses, a commerce official told state senators.

“We’re outperforming a lot of other states,” said Brent Kisling, executive director of the Oklahoma Department of Commerce.

Presenting at a meeting of the Senate Select Committee on Business Retention and Economic Development, Kisling noted that Oklahoma ranked fourth in the nation in real GDP growth over the last six months, and the state ranked 10th nationally in net in-migration in 2022. Since 2020, the state’s total population has increased by 106,000.

The job growth in Oklahoma is primarily a product of existing companies or the creation of new businesses in Oklahoma.

“We get a lot of attention for the big projects, but there are a lot of small projects that we work every day,” Kisling said.

In 2022, the department was involved in efforts to assist or attract 64 businesses involving 7,086 jobs. Of that total, 52 percent of that activity occurred in rural areas. Jennifer Springer, director of business development at the Oklahoma Department of Commerce, said 70 percent of those projects were expansions of existing Oklahoma companies.

There are currently 327 businesses in the department’s “project pipeline,” and 70 percent of those companies are existing Oklahoma businesses considering expansion.

Lawmakers indicated state policy should prioritize in-state growth rather than trying to simply incentivize out-of-state companies to relocate here. The latter process often pits multiple states against one another in a bidding war of taxpayer-funded incentives.

“I’m an Oklahoma girl, born and raised here, so I want to make sure that we’re investing in our people who have already committed to being here,” said state Sen. Kristen Thompson, an Edmond Republican who is a small businesswoman and vice-chair of the committee.

One of the state’s biggest challenges is a shortage of workers, officials said.

Currently, there are 36,000 more job openings in the state than there are people searching for work. Oklahoma’s labor-force participation rate is 60.6 percent overall and 54 percent among women.

Kisling said Oklahoma has lost out on some high-profile large projects due to the lack of labor or supply-chain issues that have nothing to do with the state.

“We have had some issues on big projects lately where there’s a perception that they’re not going to find enough resumes whenever they open their door,” Kisling said.

And in some cases, he indicated that officials at larger companies did not culturally or politically align with Oklahomans, causing them to choose other locations. That apparently occurred when Oklahoma officials sought to lure Telsa to the state.

“I believe we had convinced Elon Musk that their gigafactory should be in Oklahoma,” Kisling said. “But he was not just building a gigafactory. He was moving their whole operation from California to wherever he landed this plant. And we did a Zoom call. I remember the Zoom call very well with a bunch of his C-suite folks. And the beauty and curse of Zoom is that you can see the expressions on people’s faces. And you could tell they were not going to move from San Francisco to Tulsa, Oklahoma. They felt more comfortable moving to Austin (Texas).”

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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