The air was electric, the seats were full and the condition of the city is promising, Mayor Robert Garcia told the hundreds of people gathered at the Terrace Theater Tuesday night to witness his first State of the City address.
“I am pleased to report that the state of our city is strong, and it’s getting stronger,” Garcia announced to the audience.
The address began in traditional fashion; after an opening number—"Something's Coming" and "Tonight" from West Side Story, performed by Michaella Leigh and Richard Bermudez of Musical Theatre West, the Pledge of Allegiance lead by local Girl Scout troops 3183 and 4063, and an introduction by Vice Mayor Suja Lowenthal, Mayor Garcia took his place behind the podium, framed by the flags of the city, state and the country in familiar formation.
But as Garcia's speech ramped up, the stage was transformed. The podium was carried away and the curtain behind the mayor was raised, revealing an interactive display that followed along with the Mayor's address, in a style more reminiscent of a TED talk than a typical civic address.
The night was filled with as much optimism as it was retrospect as Garcia laid out the progress the city has made but also outlined the work it has left to do to become a true "city of the future." Just as importantly, the Mayor used his smart, elegant and innovative speech to make several big announcements.
The three “critical areas” Garcia focused on during his address were economic growth and development through innovation, the expansion of educational opportunities for all Long Beach residents and making Long Beach into a 21st century city through innovation, technology and enhanced civic engagement.
Calling it imperative to create density to stimulate Downtown business, Garcia announced plans to build 4,000 new residential units in the downtown district over the next decade, 2,500 of which are currently in progress or slated to begin in the next 5 years. He also recognized the recent expansion at the Pike, including $67 million in private investment and the announcement of retailer H&M to set up shop there and promised several other intents to open to be made public in the coming weeks.
In addition to a downtown development conference to be hosted in conjunction with the Downtown Long Beach Associates (DLBA) scheduled for late March, Garcia said he is personally reaching out to businesses to bring their stores to the city. The mayor also spoke of the economic opportunities presented by recently approved plan for a new Civic Center, one that’s expected to generate over $2 million annually for the city and draw additional businesses to Long Beach.
“We want retailers to open in Long Beach,” Garcia said.
Improving education, a large portion of the platform that Garcia based his campaign on, is something the mayor has continued to make a focus during his first six months in office. Despite the city’s educational institutions and its Long Beach College Promise (LBCP) receiving national attention and awards, Garcia noted that there is still room for improvement. Last night, he proposed new goals of raising graduation rates by an additional 10 percent, graduating 4,000 additional bachelor degrees and increasing the success of underrepresented students, all in the next ten years.
Building off of the expansion of the LBCP signed in October that emphasized the importance of early education and internships, the mayor announced pledges from the City, Port and the Pacific Gateway Workforce Investment Network (PGWIN) to double their internship offerings and called on businesses city-wide to enroll on a new website as a show of solidarity in the effort to increase what Garcia referred to as “linked learning.”
“The number one tool to economic development is education,” Garcia aid. “Tonight, I’m issuing a call to every employer in greater Long Beach to partner with us, to support us, most importantly to support our students by providing internships.”
Under the pledge, PGWIN would increase their offerings of annual paid internships from 400 to over 800. Carmen Tovar, who works for International Trade Education Programs Inc., a partner of PGWIN, was on hand to support Brenda Martinez, the young woman who Garcia used as an example of the importance of internships. Martinez, a senior at Cabrillo High School interned at a Bixby Knolls law firm and will attend Drexel University with plans of becoming a patent lawyer.
“You’re pretty much ahead of the game, you have something to put in your resume,” Tovar said of benefits of internships, speaking of their importance and recounting her own experiences coming out of school. “Now it’s hard coming out of high school and not having any experience. Employers are definitely looking for experience and that’s why we push students to have internships.”
Robbie Brown, Chief Executive Officer at Work Evolution Laboratories (WE Labs), a Downtown Long Beach co-working environment for small businesses and innovators, said that increasing density would not only potentially increase his business, but it would provide the a boost to the city as a whole as fresh minds flock to Long Beach.
“Bringing more people into this community is not only good for us from a client base but it’s good for Long Beach in general because it’s bringing people into the city that are doing innovative things,” Brown said.
In regard to Garcia’s call to action for business owners to roll up their sleeves and offer more internships, Brown said that each of 30-40 businesses that calls WE Labs home is a potential source, one that he plans to explore in an effort to do his part to help students in the city.
“Each WE Labs member is a small business in itself,” Brown said. “That’s something that we’ll definitely talk to our members about as far as becoming part of that movement and offering internships.”
As much as the mayor spoke of how the fate of the downtown district would drive the rest of the city, his focus did not stop there. Garcia announced plans to build a new Educare center—Educare is a research-based program that helps prepare at-risk youth for school with a facility to nurture and push the importance of investing in the first five years—at Barton Elementary School which will provide year-round, high-quality childhood education programs to the students of North Long Beach.
Garcia also announced the city’s intentions to have Central Long Beach, where the poverty rate eclipses 40 percent and unemployment is nearly double then that of the rest of the city, designated as a federal Promise Zone which could potentially bring in much needed funds and resources from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to help stimulate growth in the 6th District as well as economic mobility and educational opportunities for its residents.
Site of the proposed Promise Zone in Central Long Beach
Jonathan Solorzano, a community organizer who does much of his work in the proposed Promise Zone, praised Garcia for the announcement, recognizing that many of the people he works with everyday could benefit if the application goes through. Solorzano added that Garcia’s effectiveness during his first six months is due in large part to his awareness of what’s going on in all parts of the city.
“So far I think he’s doing a great job,” Solorzano said. “I don’t see a whole lot of complaints coming from community members. I think he’s on the right track. He’s definitely keeping his ear on the ground with what’s going on in the city and he’s reaching out to a variety of community members to help him out with is process.”
Not everyone was happy with the choice to designate Central Long Beach as the city's Promise Zone, however. Dr. Leon Wood, executive pastor at Church One in North Long Beach said that although he understands the choice of the 6th District, there are a lot of people in need in his congregation’s community.
“There’s 97,000 people in zip code 90805, and that’s a lot of people to be left out of the loop,” Dr. Wood said. “However, I know he had to select some place and the central area is where there is commercial and where City Hall is. But I do believe they’re going to have to move farther north.”
Wood also added that an issue that he wished that Garcia would’ve touched on given recent unrest between civilians and police forces across the nation, something he is personally invested in, is the unification of the city’s residents.
“The one major hurdle that wasn’t quite addressed was the uniting of the people in Long Beach,” Wood said. “All ethnicities into one working group, striving for the same thing. That wasn’t quite mentioned. We still haven’t had a discussion on how we’re going to effectively bring all the people together to work on one accord, similar to what Dr. King used to talk about.”
“Central really was the area that deserved that kind of attention,” Councilman and North Long Beach resident Rex Richardson said in support of the Mayor's plan. “We’re all hands on deck to support Central Long Beach. A rising tide lifts all ships. In order for us to really improve the city we have to focus on every part of our city including Central Long Beach.”
Whether or not the application for a designated Promise Zone is eventually approved, a hurdle that is facing everyone is the changing environment and how the city leaders plan to adapt to it.
“We now face what President Obama has called the defining challenge of our generation: climate change,” Garcia said. “And let me be clear. Climate change is here. Climate change is not something that is coming in the future. It is already here.”
The city has already made strides to make both the city and the Port more sustainable. Garcia pointed out the 225-plus acres of park space added city-wide over the last 15 years, the city’s beaches continuously earning A and B grades from Heal the Bay, the effort to increase solar power (over 2,000 panels city-wide) and increase greenery (over 4,000 new trees planted) and the fact that on the 10th anniversary of the Green Port Policy, pollution from ships, trucks and trains is down 82 percent despite an increase in cargo traffic.
Garcia announced intentions to partner with the Aquarium of the Pacific, which the mayor described as having “world renowned programs,” to work with scientific experts to devise a Climate Resiliency Action Plan to be presented to City Council. Garcia also announced the launch of a new city website this year, which will serve as a 24/7 online city hall where the hopes that the increase of shared information will increase civic engagement.
Whether you look at the $3 million budget surplus city leaders have worked to create since the economic collapse in 2008, the fact that household incomes are up in downtown (75 percent) and city wide (33 percent) since 2000, that unemployment has tapered down to 8.8 percent since its peak of nearly 15 percent in July 2010 or that 2014 is in line to become the least violent year in over four decades; the city is in a better place.
The city was recently announced as one of 12 cities in the country to receive the prestigious Bloomberg Philanthropies Innovation Grants which will infuse $3 million dollars over three years into the city as well as bring a group of some of the best and brightest thinkers and innovators to Long Beach and charging them with the task of further developing the city's economy.
But still, the forward-thinking man steering the ship still has questions.
“President John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy were both fond of saying ‘There are those who look at things the way they are and ask why…I dream of things that never were,’ and ask why not?’” Garcia said.
[Editors Note: A spokesman from the Mayor's office clarified that while North Long Beach was considered for the Promise Zone application process, it did not meet federal criteria. Central Long Beach was the only portion that did qualify and that's why it was selected.]
Mayor Robert Garcia's full State of the City address: