Oklahoma announces automotive accelerator program to attract business to state

Drew Butler
The Daily Ardmoreite
Oklahoma Secretary of Commerce and Workforce Development Sean Kouplen hosts an automotive industry call on Thursday morning.

On Aug. 3, the State of Oklahoma announced the Oklahoma Automotive Accelerator Program that is designed to target the automotive industry and locate their companies within the state. The program comes after Tulsa — and by extension the state — lost out on the Tesla Gigafactory ultimately awarded to Austin, Texas, and the experience gained at the state level by going after the project.

Oklahoma Secretary of Commerce and Workforce Development Sean Kouplen hosted a conference call with members of the state's automotive industry and other economic developers to discuss the experience with Tesla, what the state learned, and how the state can better market itself in the future.

Kouplen said everything began after Tesla CEO Elon Musk sent out a tweet stating his intention to build a new Gigafactory somewhere in the central part of the country. This was quickly followed by tweets from Gov. Stitt, Kouplen himself, and thousands of other Oklahomans inviting Tesla to consider Oklahoma as the site.

The response secured an invitation for state representatives on an initial conference call.

“Frankly, one thing we learned is that we weren’t really on any radar or any sort of lists prior to those tweets,” Kouplen said. “So there’s one issue, but that got us on the radar.”

From there, the state department of commerce worked with economic directors from around the state to compose a single state application — something Tesla did not receive from the other potential location. However Kouplen believes this had a positive impact on the process going forward.

“One of the things we learned and heard from Tesla is no one else did it this way,” Kouplen said. “Everyone else had every city — every community — duking it out, trying to discredit each other, and trying to land the project.”

Kouplen said Oklahoma set itself apart because multiple locations across the state worked together to submit their proposals to the State Department of Commerce. He said the company was very complimentary about how much time it saved them as they looked to narrow down locations.

After Tesla singled out Tulsa, an executive found this cooperation continuing.

“When he would go from site to site, each person was rooting for the other sites, and this is something we have in Oklahoma that no-one else has,” Kouplen said. “When he would visit with other economic developers, they wouldn’t talk well about the other sites and the other developers — and that’s a big deal. That was shocking to them. They’ve never seen that, and it really spoke well of our state.”

Kouplen said he believes the executives and Musk himself were impressed with what Oklahoma had to offer, but they had a few concerns. The concerns, Kouplen believes, came down to quality of life, the ability to attract the highest level of talent to the state, and how comfortable key employees from California would be living in Oklahoma.

“At the end of the day, it really boiled down to where did those California key employees want to live, and they just felt more comfortable in Austin,” Kouplen said.

Moving forward, Oklahoma plans to use what was learned throughout the experience to make some changes. They also identified a few weaknesses that need to be addressed in the future.

Kouplen said the number one problem is the state’s “brand.”

“It’s very, very frustrating to go all over the world — as I have and as others on this call have — and when people think about Oklahoma, they’re just so inaccurate,” Kouplen said. “So I think it’s my job, and the governor’s and the mayor’s and the chambers of commerce that are on this call to do a better job of telling our story. We shouldn’t have to bring people here for them to realize this is a great state.”

Kouplen also said the state needs to focus on showing the world that Oklahoma has a skilled workforce and the ability to attract new talent.

“We have over 2,300 engineers that are produced out of Oklahoma universities every year,” Kouplen said. “We have the ability to attract them in, and we have shown that, but that is not the perception. The perception is that certain places around the country are the home of tech talent and engineering talent, and we are not perceived as one of those right now.”

He said he hopes to use the spotlight shined on the state throughout the selection process to attract more interest and more business.

“We feel like the tremendous publicity this provided to the city (Tulsa) and to our state needs to be leveraged,” Kouplen said. “We’ve had millions of people from all over the world exposed to Oklahoma that had not heard about Oklahoma before. So our goal is to take all the things I’ve shared with you today, package them up into this automotive accelerator program and begin telling our story all over the world.”