OKLAHOMA CITY — After about a half-century in business, Nowata County’s optometrist retired late last year, leaving residents to drive long distances to get their eyes checked.
Such inconveniences are becoming more common in this county in northeastern Oklahoma, with a population of about 10,500.
Like many rural areas, Nowata County is getting older. Its younger residents are wooed away by city life and job opportunities elsewhere.
Community manager Anthony Tucker — who commutes from nearby Washington County — said places like Nowata County face a Catch-22. To lure people, they must have jobs. But to get businesses and jobs, they need people willing to work.
That’s why Tucker is excited by a proposal making its way through the Legislature to exempt anyone out of state who moves into Nowata County from paying income taxes.
The proposal allows for the five-year tax exemptions in 25 “Rural Opportunity Zones" that represent the one-third of the state's counties that are expected to see population declines over the next 60 years.
It’s a win-win proposal for everyone, said Rep. Tom Newell, R-Seminole, who authored the measure. Seminole County is one of two interior counties that will see the exemption. Most of the rest border Texas — which has no income tax — and Kansas.
“If the trend continues of the rural areas dying, the people in urban areas will be subsidizing things in the rural areas," Newell said. "So I think it’s much better just to try to revitalize those rural areas so they can stand on their own two feet and contribute to the overall health of the state.”
Newell admits that the incentive won't drive hundreds of people to rural Oklahoma. But the tax exemption hurts no one, he said, since the state isn't expecting any income from people living outside Oklahoma anyway.
Once they arrive, they’ll still pay sales and property taxes, he noted.
Newell said his idea came from Kansas, which has successfully used the strategy to recruit agricultural processors and much-needed doctors to rural communities. It's so successful that lawmakers there are kicking around the idea of expanding the program to urban areas that could use a boost, he said.
Newell said he hopes that Oklahoma’s version will be as successful and can later expand to counties where the population is expected to stagnate or to medical professionals who work in rural areas with the most need.
Lyle Roggow, president of the Duncan Area Economic Development Foundation, said he'd like to see the program in Stephens County. Under the current plan, neighboring counties will qualify.
“Any rural counties would love to have an opportunity for something like that. I’m glad they’re kind of thinking outside the box," said Roggow, who serves on the legislative committee for the state’s Professional Economic Development Council
Stephens County’s population is expected to remain stagnant or only grow slightly, and the community at times find itself with more jobs than people to fill them, he said.
Roggow said such an incentive only works in counties with enough jobs and infrastructure to attract and keep workers.
If the jobs leave, he said he fears those lured by the incentive will, too.
In Nowata County, Tucker said the idea is already generating buzz — and hope.
Inquiries are coming from businesses just over the state line, in Kansas, interested in relocating with their employees if the measure passes.
Tucker said younger families will buy houses, send their children to school, pump money into the economy, pay sales and property taxes to the school district, and serve in county leadership posts now held by aging people.
“I think the reward for them having extra discretionary dollars will outweigh that loss” of income taxes, he said.