In what has become the trademark style of Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia, the 2016 State of the City address was filled with as much optimism as it was style.
After the glitz, glam and theatrics of the reception and opening ceremony—including food trucks, electric bus displays, ping pong tables and a musical number courtesy of Long Beach's Musical Theatre West—Garcia launched into an upbeat presentation in front of over 2,000 residents and guests, detailing what the city has accomplished in the past year, but more importantly, where it's going in the coming years.
Photo by Adrian Liwanag.
“The State of the City is strong and getting stronger,” Garcia declared, to rapturous applause. “This is a great time to live here, to work here, to open up a business and to raise a family.”
This year’s address built off last year’s message, borrowing from a similar narrative regarding the city’s upward trend; however, it dually addressed many of the issues facing the residents of Long Beach. Garcia’s address again included an abundance of references to efforts to strengthen the city’s educational system, the continued growth of the economy and the explosion of investment in the downtown sector. But Garcia acknowledged that low wages, a rise in crime and budget shortfalls are stymying efforts to keep up with backlogged infrastructure needs continue to pose problems for the city, to what appeared to be a largely friendly audience.
He lauded the efforts of educators in the city to expand the Long Beach College Promise after Long Beach City College announced last year that eligible Long Beach Unified School District students would now be able to attend classes tuition-free for one year, doubling the previous model’s offering. Garcia also noted the progress made from a pledge he made during last year’s SOTC to increase internship opportunities in the city by partnering with the Port of Long Beach (POLB), Pacific Gateway Workforce Investment Network and other Long Beach businesses.
Photo by Keeley Smith.
According to Garcia, the city has added 750 new internships, nearly meeting his mark of doubling the 1,500 internships that existed prior to his call to action last January. Access to pre-school education, another of the mayor’s goals set during last year’s address, has also seen notable progress, with the city adding 800 new pre-school seats in the past year, putting his goal of offering early childhood education citywide within reach by his goal date of 2018.
"As a teacher, you all know that supporting our schools and our students will always be my top priority," Garcia said.
The development of the city, especially in the downtown area, was heralded by the mayor, who has made revitalizing that part of the city a core focus of his first term as mayor, who points to the power the neighborhood has to serve as an economic driver for Long Beach as a whole.
In the past year, the city has seen hundreds of millions of dollars go toward development citywide with some $60 million being poured into downtown projects. With nearly 2,000 new residential units in the works or earmarked for construction in the coming year, Garcia’s goal of attracting 4,000 new units to the area seems to be within reach.
The continued selling of former redevelopment agency holdings—46 of 53 properties are currently in escrow—will generate millions of dollars for the city, Garcia said, and will further facilitate the development of neighborhoods.
The approval of the new Civic Center project, which is projected to create 8,000 jobs and could potentially inject life into a re-imagined Lincoln Park, is something that stakeholders believed could attract further development projects into the downtown sector. The job creation alone could help drive down already low unemployment numbers—which stands at 6.5 percent, the lowest mark since 2007.
Photo by Keeley Smith.
The mayor also touched upon 2015 being one of the busiest years in the Port of Long Beach's (POLB) history, referencing the stellar sales of Star Wars figurines, which are shipped through the Port of Long Beach.
"We really have to thank Luke, and Darth Vader," he said, to the audience's laughter.
However low wages, a topic the city has addressed in months of meetings leading up to an anticipated vote on raising the minimum wage in the city later this month, remain a point of concern for Garcia.
The mayor expressed support for the Economic Development Commission’s recommendations handed down earlier this month, which included a proposal to raise the minimum wage to $13 per hour over a three-year period. This move would deviate from predictions that the city would be following the lead of surrounding municipalities like Los Angeles, Santa Monica and the county as a whole in their decisions to adopt a $15 minimum wage.
"As we debate the final law, let's use the work of the Commission to build an ordinance that works for everyone—and gives Long Beach the raise it deserves," said Garcia, a point that met with some of the strongest applause. "An increased minimum wage will stimulate our economy and help many families who struggle to make ends meet.”
Strained budgets are not unique to families residing in the city, as the city battles its own bottom-line battles to close those gaps and even increase services despite a tight revenue stream.
Garcia remarked that while crime rates are dramatically lower than they were a generation ago, there has been a recent surge in violent crimes, including a murder rate that outpaced 2014’s mark by 10 over the same period of time in 2015.
Although the spike in crime follows a similar pattern of other major cities across the nation, and it might be inflated by the fact that the preceding years were historic lows, Garcia was critical of state lawmakers’ failure to provide additional funding, adding that the city cannot wait for outside funding to continue to invest in public safety.
"As we see more low-level offenders coming back to our community, we have to support their transition back into the workforce and to life with their families,” Garcia said. “We are not, however, getting adequate financial support from the State or the County."
He said he’ll be asking the city council to not only re-open the previously shuttered Fire Station 8 in Belmont Shore, but also the Long Beach Police Department’s (LBPD) South Division, which was absorbed by the West Division in 2002.
The mayor said the city is committed to its public safety partners and equipping them with the resources to keep Long Beach as one of the safest big cities in the the country. That includes the recent adoption of a pilot program that equipped LBPD officers with body cameras, a move that the department and city leaders hope will help build-up community trust in the department while also lowering the occurrences of officer involved complaints.
“Policing is changing, and we need to provide support and training so Long Beach continues to lead the way on public safety," said Garcia.
However, Garcia was careful to note that those investments would have to be made delicately because of the predicted budget deficits expected in the next few years due to payments being made to city employee retirement plans.
The Terrace Theater before the start of the State of the City. Photo by Keeley Smith.
Bracing for those planned deficits have also resulted in a large backlog of infrastructure projects, which a few weeks ago was revealed to have a price tag of about $2.8 billion. This includes street paving, park improvement projects, sewage, lighting and a multitude of other city needs. Garcia said that a plan for funding these projects is expected to be given in the coming weeks by the city manager.
"We spend millions annually to fix our streets, sidewalks and public buildings, including more than $67 million dollars this year," said Garcia. "Yet we continue to fall behind... If we want our streets and public buildings to reflect our status as a world class city, we must fund more infrastructure repair and maintenance."
Garcia also pointed to accomplishments regarding the arts in Long Beach, including the Long Beach Museum of Art's increase in visits by 51 percent in the last year. He urged city council to initiate a "1% for the arts program—a permanent source of funding for the arts."
Garcia’s largest announcements, however, had very little to do with the economy or education or even public safety, but more to do with livability issues. Climate change was a major point of focus of his 2015 SOTC address and Garcia even added his name to a list of the Compact of Mayors that he signed onto last year, committing the city to “aggressive” reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
In the past year, Garcia has pushed to improve the city’s share of the Los Angeles Riverbed and continued his decade’s long battle for the breakwater study that finally came to fruition when the United States Army Corps of Engineers agreed to take up the matter in November.
He announced that next week, he would officially sign an agreement to start the study that could determine if and how the breakwater could be realigned without negatively affecting the port or residences along the shore. Garcia also announced that he’ll push for a permanent one percent funding allocation for the arts in Long Beach.
The ecosystem restoration projects involving the breakwater and development of the Long Beach portion of the LA River showed consistency with the mayor’s dedication to focusing on environmental issues, including climate change. He noted that a registry for city departments that will monitor established "green goals" and an infusion of more electrical vehicle outlets will help the city's progress toward becoming more eco-friendly. The continued growth of Long Beach Transit’s fleet of electric and alternative-fuel buses, which now stands at 75 percent of its fleet, also has alleviated some of the pollution in the city.
The state of Long Beach may be strong, but whether or not it gets stronger may hinge on the financial constraints facing the city in the next few years. It must strike a balance between funding its needs as a city while not digging itself deeper into debt, something that Garcia praised the current city council for remaining committed to.
Garcia compared the resolve of the city to the way it reacted when a series of power outages left a large portion of downtown without power over the summer. It was a strain on residents who were struggling to cope with high temperatures and no electricity to help cool down, but it showcased the ability of city leaders and the community to pull together in a time of need.
He closed his speech with his signature note of hope.
"This is Long Beach. The people here tonight are what make Long Beach great," said Garcia. "While there are challenges to face, I know we will build a better Long Beach—together."
Photo by Adrian Liwanag.
This article was updated on 1/14/16, correcting the year the South Division of the LBPD disbanded.