OKLAHOMA CITY – If you have been driving around central Oklahoma and noticed an uptick in the number of vehicles sporting California license plates, it is not your imagination.
In fact, the Oklahoma Department of Commerce has taken notice of the growing interest in Oklahoma by people from states like California – so much so that they are working to attract those out-of-staters and hopefully get them to move themselves and their businesses permanently to the state of Oklahoma.
Brent Kisling, executive director of the Oklahoma Department of Commerce, said approximately one year ago, Gov. Kevin Stitt focused on targeting five states – that were viewed as “anti-business.” These five states were Washington, New York, Illinois, California and Colorado.
Colorado was included because it was a neighboring state, Kisling said, but California was the priority state.
Kisling said he could not go into certain specifics of their strategy, but he did say that the businesses that were targeted in California were “anything related to energy, the auto industry” and, as many now know, “the Tesla project” that Tulsa tried to land but ultimately went to Austin, Texas, after multiple visits by Tesla founder Elon Musk.
Twenty companies total were identified by the state Commerce Department as potential targets, with Gov. Stitt mailing each a personalized letter. This, Kisling said, was all before the coronavirus pandemic and a lot of the department’s marketing efforts were curtailed.
But in the past two months, this “California Strategy” program has ramped up again with billboards erected in both Orange County and the Bay Area of California, close to companies that they had an eye on.
Google search ads were placed along with certain keywords related to Oklahoma and the benefits of relocating a business to the Sooner State.
“Leave the coast to get the most,” Kisling said, echoing the phrase used to attract California businesses.
He said they would contrast operating costs in the Golden State with the cost of being located in Oklahoma, a state that is under far more restrictive COVID-19 conditions than Oklahoma.
“As of today, we have 125 businesses that are in our pipeline,” Kisling said, adding that the Commerce Department is already working with 11 companies in California on convincing them to make the move, with several Commerce employees working out in California to encourage them to make the move.
When asked about the perception people in states like California have of Oklahoma, Kisling said it has been a challenge, particularly when the state’s new slogan and logo – “Imagine That” – had to be curtailed as it was being launched at the same time COVID-19 was rapidly spreading earlier this year.
Another area where Oklahoma is benefiting from California’s economy is the film industry. Whereas the state’s Film Office had been under the Department of Tourism, Stitt is moving it to the Department of Commerce.
Oklahoma, Kisling said, was the only state “open for filming movies and television during the pandemic.”
As a result, he noted, “you are now seeing production companies looking to move to Oklahoma.”
This includes up to seven Hollywood-based sound-stage production companies, Kisling said. That would be hundreds of jobs that would come to Oklahoma, further benefiting and growing the state’s economy.
A recent example of a production company relocating from California to Oklahoma would be Oklahoma City-based Thunderbird Films, which was founded in 2019 by Oklahoma City native Randy Wayne, who worked for nearly two decades in the Los Angeles film industry, meeting his wife Talia Bella out there, until the two saw opportunities back in Wayne’s home state.
In fact, Thunderbird Films just completed principal photography on their new film Model House, which was filmed in Oklahoma City and at Turner Falls State Park near Davis.
The thriller, about five models staying together in a secluded house that is targeted by criminals looking to extort money via social-media followers, was written and directed by Derek Pike. Pike admitted to the Oklahoma Film & Music Office that he was skeptical about relocating to Oklahoma to make Model House.
“When I was first pitched the idea of shooting Model House in Oklahoma, I have to admit I was a bit skeptical,” said Pike. “I had never been to Oklahoma and couldn’t imagine cheating it for California. But after I (visited Oklahoma), met the film commission and found everything I needed here without having to make any sacrifices, I was 100 percent in.”
This is the sort of reaction Kisling and his office are hoping to hear more of in coming months and years as Oklahoma is seen as a destination for film projects and more.
“It is so wonderful that Randy has moved back to his home state with his partner Talia,” said OF+MO Director Tava Maloy Sofsky at OKFilmMusic.org. “We are excited that those who have moved away are seeing the opportunities in Oklahoma and choosing to come home. As the local film industry continues to break records and expand its infrastructure and crew depth, we are optimistic that more expatriates and companies like Thunderbird Films will proudly choose Oklahoma and make the overall industry even stronger.”
Meanwhile, Kisling said his department’s strategy has steadily maneuvered through the pandemic and added that it’s “an exciting time” for the state, a time when many other states were not open for business or severely curtailed business activities over health concerns.
For more information, go to CAtoOK.com, which is part of the Department of Commerce’s website.