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At Lawton forum, Lamb touts state's economic strengths

A hopeful economic outlook and a call for the state to market its advantages greeted participants in the Lawton-Fort Sill Economic Development Corporation's annual luncheon Wednesday.

Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb told the crowd that Oklahoma has provided the tools the state needs to compete for industry  now it's time to go out and sell the world and the rest of the country, and economist Mark Snead said the Lawton area should expect another year of steady economic progress.

Lamb said that, despite the energy downturn and state budget problems, Oklahoma is poised for growth. The state has made changes in public policy by adopting a right-to-work law, reforming tort laws and creating a new workers compensation system, he said, and it can now stand toe to toe with Texas in all those areas. What it hasn't done, he said, is spread that news and actively recruited businesses.

The situation, he said, has been akin to University of Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops and Oklahoma State University coach Mike Gundy sitting at their desks waiting for blue chip athletes to call them. That's not how the coaches work, he said, and it shouldn't be the way the State of Oklahoma works.

The state has other things to sell, he said, including the resilience of Oklahomans, a good higher education system, Native American heritage and teachers who are passionate about their calling.

The Lawton area, he said, has made strides in diversifying its economy and is a "paradigm for the rest of the state."

How much the region has diversified was made clear in Snead's report. While the military is still the largest employer in the county, the military share of employment has been falling so that now it accounts for only 22 percent of all jobs.

The area has suffered from military downsizing, he said, but private-sector employment has continued to grow even though military and federal civilian employment has declined. Total employment is expected to reach 70,700 this year, a new record.

Perspective is important, he said. While the Lawton area has suffered from reductions in military employment, it has managed to weather the downturn. And while it didn't participate in the energy boom, neither was it stricken by the energy bust. Retail sales fell 1.2 percent last year, but that put Lawton right in the middle of the state's 30 largest retail markets. Only six of those markets reported gains; Oklahoma City's sales fell 3.9 percent, Duncan's 4 percent and Chickasha's 4.3 percent. Woodward and Elk City, which are very dependent on the energy sector, saw double-digit losses.

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