Now in the first year of his second term, Mayor Robert Garcia continues to lead Long Beach through a period of growth and change. Private and public investments are flowing into the city, creating a host of new developments. New housing and a new civic center are altering the downtown skyline, Long Beach Exchange and the upcoming 2nd & PCH center are creating new retail options for residents, and planned hotels stand to bolster the city’s strong hospitality and tourism industry. The city continues to invest Measure A monies into infrastructure, from city streets to park playgrounds to sidewalks.
Robert Garcia and his staff on the top floor of the new 11-story city hall, which they expect to occupy by the spring of 2019. The floor will serve as the city’s legislative department, which includes the mayor, city councilmember offices and the office of the city clerk. Pictured from left, front row: Randy Rawlings – intern; Veronica Quezada, communications deputy; Sharon Weissman, senior transportation advisor; and Isaac Romero, scheduler. Center row: Tim Patton, senior administrative deputy; Abigail Mejia, senior field deputy; Kenneth Phin, intern; Mayor Garcia; Justin Ramirez, legislative director; and Maria Banegas, administrative aide. Back row: Lauren Vargas, director of innovation delivery & special projects; Tyler Curley, legislative deputy; Mark Taylor, chief of staff; and Luke Klipp, special projects officer. (Business Journal photograph by Matt Fukushima Photography)
But Long Beach is not a city without critical issues. Homelessness, a lack of housing and a synthetic drug epidemic are taking their toll on some of the city’s most vulnerable residents. And, as the mayor pointed out, the issues are often linked.
Long Beach could experience a number of significant changes depending on how residents vote in November on four city charter amendments – including one that extends the terms of the mayor and council to three, and another that would form a redistricting commission for city council districts. Another ballot measure would create safety protections and workload restrictions for hotel workers.
In his fifth annual interview with the Long Beach Business Journal, Mayor Garcia discussed these topics and others as part of a larger conversation on the city’s successes, challenges and his priorities for the future. Garcia was joined by his chief of staff, Mark Taylor, and Veronica Quezada, communications deputy, on August 28 for an interview with Business Journal Publisher George Economides, Editor Samantha Mehlinger, Senior Writer Brandon Richardson and Staff Writer Annette Semerdjian.
LBBJ: What’s the toughest part of your job? Is there anything that worries you and keeps you up at night?
Garcia: The toughest part is knowing that you’re the final decision maker, and the weight of the big decisions you have to make consistently. Sometimes it’s a lot, but if you lead with love of your city and community, which I have a lot of, that becomes easier over time. What keeps you up at night are those big decisions, especially as they relate to people’s safety. Government does a lot of things, but the most important is keeping people safe in their neighborhoods and in their homes. Anytime there is a major incident, or anytime we’re making life and death type of decisions, those are the big issues. How do we react in a major emergency? What happens if there’s an attack on the Port of Long Beach? What do you do in an incident when there is a mass shooting? Those kind of incidents, as mayor, you think about a lot.
LBBJ: We know we have a lot of successes to talk about today, but let’s start off with some of the challenges.
The City Budget
LBBJ: Let’s start with city budget [which was approved prior to this interview being published and goes into effect October 1]. You made numerous recommendations for the new budget. Walk us through some of your recommendations and why you decided on these items.
Garcia: First, it’s important to know the entire budget is a recommendation. The way the budget process works is we start early, we go through the budget, we insert as much as possible into the final product. As the budget is being developed, there will be additional recommendations. The most important are the addition of fire engines and firefighters in East Long Beach and the addition of the bike cops. Both our police and firefighter departments continue to grow as part of the commitment to Measure A [10-year sales tax increase approved by voters in 2016], and both continue to strengthen.
To highlight a few of the others: we’re allocating a significant amount of Measure A dollars, that are currently unallocated, to rebuild both the police and fire academies; we’re putting a huge amount of money back into streets and sidewalks and a lot of what I would call parks projects, tot lots and those kinds of projects.
Then you’ve got a different area of funding around social responsibility and around civil rights issues that have been important to the city council. One thing that I’ve tried to do is listen to the council throughout the year and to their priorities. So, there is some funding for a youth and children’s fund that the community has asked for, and money for the justice fund. We put $200,000 to expunge low-level marijuana convictions. They’ve either done their time or their punishment for breaking the law and we can help them get a job.
LBBJ: Do police officers support this?
Garcia: They do. In fact, that money is going to the city prosecutor’s office because they’re the ones who can do the expunging. We worked with the police department and the city prosecutor. Obviously, marijuana is now legal in California, so to have people who can’t get back into the workforce because of that . . . I think we have to fix that.
LBBJ: Is there a justice fund in other cities?
Garcia: Yes, Los Angeles, L.A. County – it’s happening in every big city. The city council approved the justice fund and said to find the resources. Also, the budget for the arts is the biggest it’s ever been. I’ve increased arts funding every year since I’ve been mayor. This includes more funding for the Arts Council for Long Beach and for the Long Beach Museum of Art, and the One Percent for the Arts program, which we initiated last year.
LBBJ: How much money is raised from the One Percent program?
Garcia: In year one, it’s raised about $165,000, and hopefully it will grow over time.
LBBJ: And that goes to the arts council?
Garcia: It goes right to the arts council to be dispersed.
LBBJ: And its board of directors decides how to spend the money?
Garcia: The board and the staff will disperse the money. Remember, where they spend it and how they spend it has already been prescribed, so some has to go to the traditional institutions, such as the symphony, Musical Theatre West and others.
LBBJ: POW! WOW! is in there too, right?
Garcia: We’re funding POW! WOW! as well, so we can continue that mural project, which is really important.
LBBJ: We asked city staff how much your recommendations would cost, and they said roughly $4 million, if they’re all implemented.
Garcia: If that includes the police and fire recommendations, that probably sounds about right.
LBBJ: Right, but the $4 million has to be found. These aren’t existing dollars.
Garcia: That’s not correct, completely. What we did is, we took savings from our health care contract and applied some of those dollars to these programs. We also took the surplus [from current budget year]. There’s a $500,000 surplus we haven’t spent. We took a few hundred thousand of the surplus and also applied it to some of these additional recommendations. What’s happening is the economy is producing better results for us, so we feel good about it.
LBBJ: So you feel these recommendations are the best expenditure of money?
Garcia: Every budget is a combination of policy decisions and the wants of everybody. I have to do the best I can to take a council that’s diverse in opinion and put together something that they’re going to support and they’ve been asking for, and of course that the community has. To me, any budget that increases police and firefighters is great. To go from where we started a few years ago, where we had just a little over 800 officers to now where we’re at 845 officers, that’s the budget going in the right direction.
LBBJ: Is that counting the recent academy graduation?
Garcia: Yes. The fact that the police and fire departments are growing – there aren’t cuts – are all good things.
LBBJ: So you feel pretty comfortable? In a press statement you said . . .
Garcia: That it’s the best budget yet? Yeah, I think so. I do, because it strengthens public safety, we’re rebuilding police and fire academy buildings which need work, we’re putting historic levels into infrastructure. So all the most important stuff is all getting funded at a good level. We’re also able to fund other programs that have been important to members of the council and the community. I think it’s good.
LBBJ: There have been a series of community budget meetings. Have you had any feedback from those meetings?
Garcia: I haven’t attended those, but I’ve heard they’ve been going pretty well. Overall, people are pretty happy. We have a double A credit rating, our reserves are at policy and the best shape they’ve been in in a very long time, and we’re able to invest in some of these other programs. Financially, we’re in really good shape and we continue to pay down that pension obligation. Those are all really good things. A big part of it is the economy. I think the economy is helping substantially.
Mayor Robert Garcia and his staff wave goodbye to the current city hall from their soon-to-be offices on the 11th floor of the new city hall. The move from the 14-story structure is expected to begin early next year and be completed by spring. Pictured from left are: Isaac Romero, scheduler; Tyler Curley, legislative deputy; Veronica Quezada, communications deputy; Kenneth Phin, intern; Randy Rawlings, intern; Sharon Weissman, senior transportation Advisor; Mark Taylor, chief of staff; Mayor Garcia; Maria Banegas, administrative aide; Abigail Mejia; senior field deputy; Justin Ramirez, legislative director; Lauren Vargas, director of innovation delivery & special projects; Luke Klipp, special projects officer; and Tim Patton, senior administrative deputy. (Business Journal photograph by Matt Fukushima Photography)
LBBJ: Let’s talk about homelessness. We discussed it last year as well. Since that time, has the issue of homelessness in Long Beach become better or worse?
Garcia: I don’t think it’s become better or worse – I think we’re doing more. When we do the next count we’ll get a better idea of where we’re at, but there’s no question to me that homelessness across the state is at a crisis level. It is the single biggest challenge we’ve had in the city. We have a lot of work to do, but this year’s budget gives us the ability to do more than we ever. When we were talking last year, we didn’t have the Measure H [a quarter of a percent increase to sales tax] funding, we certainly didn’t have the funding that’s coming in from the state, the $12 million, so we’re going to do some things that are really creative and unique in the homelessness budget.
We’re establishing clean teams made up of people who are experiencing homelessness, who are going to get workforce skills and actually get paid and be out helping clean streets. We finally have the resources to permanently buy and build that year-round shelter. We are creating grants for community organizations and neighborhood groups to help solve the issue around homelessness. We have the Everyone Home task force producing a new strategic plan surrounding homelessness that will be released at the end of this year. So there’s a lot more going on now on homelessness than there was a year ago, but it still remains a major challenge.
We’re also adding a HEART team [Homeless Education And Response Team] in this year’s budget to replicate the success of current HEART teams that we have, which as you know are fire paramedic units that respond essentially to people experiencing homelessness. That helps tremendously so that the emergency rooms and hospitals are not full and we can treat these lower level medical conditions that people who are experiencing homelessness might have. We’re also adding four quality of life officers. Their job is to work exclusively with people experiencing homelessness.
We’re doing a lot more, but we’re not going to solve this challenge until there is a statewide refocus on housing construction. This isn’t going to go away, unless we have more housing. Long Beach is building, and I think we’re building our fair share, and everyone else has got to pick up the pace.
LBBJ: Have you spoken with mayors in nearby cities? Are they helping? Do they have resources?
Garcia: Different cities build on a different level. At the end of the day, it’s going to be up to the big cities to lift most of the water here. Most of the cities around us don’t build as much housing or affordable housing. The cities that have the ability to do a lot of this are the cities that have land and the cities that are adjacent to open space. Long Beach is landlocked, so we can build up and we’re doing that in the downtown and we’re doing that along the Blue Line.
But when you look at cities like Sacramento, Northern San Diego, parts of the Inland Empire and the Central Valley, we actually have the ability to build more housing there. We just need to connect those to actual jobs. You have to have jobs and the ability to work, so that is where the opportunity to have housing is.
LBBJ: Has this been your toughest issue since you’ve been elected?
LBBJ: Because it seems to be the one that, not just you, but everybody is struggling with the most.
Garcia: It is. It’s also the toughest issue that the state is struggling with, so it’s not unique to us. We should never forget that people that are on the street are human beings and many of them are mentally ill. I’m amazed at how easily that’s discarded by a lot of folks. It’s become such a norm that we forget and dehumanize these people. I think we have to be better people and we have to rise to this challenge. A part of that means we have to support housing construction.
LBBJ: At the August 21 city council meeting there was a presentation about how to fund additional homeless services, potentially a tax increase – utility user tax, parcel tax, bed tax. As the city is moving forward to determine which one of those would be the best option, if any, are you also going to be talking about what additional services you think that funding could go towards.
Garcia: Obviously, there has to first be a community process. We have to hear about what’s even possible or what impact there would be to the economy. If you ask me, just straight out, what I think could work – and by the way, I’m saying this without knowing there would even be support or we could even do it – but I’m not sure most of those options would work nor would they really be the right approach. The only approach that I think works on the housing side is the inducement of bond. If you actually want to focus on housing, the issue is, how do you subsidize housing affordability for homelessness, low-income folks and middle class people that live in Long Beach? The only way you could do that is that the city has to provide a subsidy to developers to make those affordable. All the affordable housing we have across the city isn’t because developers find it in the kindness of their hearts to build affordable housing, it’s because they receive some kind of grant or subsidy to build the affordable housing. It’s almost always the case.
The city has got to find ways to subsidize more senior housing, housing for students, middle-class family housing, housing for homeless veterans. Could a bond help us achieve that? It could, but I think that bonds are complex, and they require two-thirds of the population to vote for them. That’s a hard lift for Long Beach. I’m glad that that’s not something anyone rushed into. I think that would have been a mistake. We can take a year now and look and explore if that’s even something the city would support.
The Need For Housing
LBBJ: How do we get to a point where we are building enough affordable housing?
Garcia: We’re building hundreds and hundreds of affordable homes, mostly in the downtown, but are we building enough? We’d like to build more. There’s an absolute need for more, especially when it comes to affordable senior housing and affordable housing for young families that are starting out and trying to get their foot in the door. Affordable is broad – to me, we also need housing for just working professionals. If you’re a working professional, you can’t afford a house. Affordable housing is interesting, you know, if you’re a teacher, you’re not going to buy a house – it’s very hard unless you have someone helping you to buy a home in Long Beach.
So we have to focus on the whole scope and we need to help young homeowners who want to buy their first home. That’s something we have got to do a better job at and that’s part of this discussion.
LBBJ: We have quite a lot of development going on around the city. How do you feel we’re doing with building market rate housing?
Garcia: There’s no question that the market rate housing is booming in the city. We’re building thousands and thousands of market rate homes and units, particularly in the downtown and across parts of the city. We’re building that kind of density in the appropriate places that need it. But if developers own a piece of land, they’re going to build the project they want to build as long as it aligns with zoning law.
When we sold all of our parcels [due to the elimination of redevelopment agencies], we were dictated by the state on how to sell them. We couldn’t mandate that this parcel be an affordable housing development. We just had to sell it. And whoever bought it, they could build whatever project that they wanted. Fortunately, a lot of developers made the decision to build affordable projects, which we support with grants and community investment dollars. But there aren’t a lot of developers out there that are building affordable housing out of the kindness of their own hearts. It’s just not happening. We have to find ways to subsidize them.
LBBJ: We speak with a lot of developers, and they mention that at the state level it’s difficult because there are a lot of regulations they have to go through to build in California specifically as opposed to other areas. Is there anything at the state level you think should be done?
Garcia: I think people don’t like to talk about it, but building housing at the state is totally difficult. CEQA [the California Environmental Quality Act], which is an important policy document about environmental standards, in my opinion, needs to be looked at again. It makes it very difficult to build housing and projects across the state because of the incredibly onerous process. We have overregulated housing and construction in general in California, and we have made it much more expensive and difficult to build.
LBBJ: Is Sacramento listening?
Garcia: Most of us expect Gavin Newsom is going to be the next governor. I think he’s actually interested in looking at this issue. He’s talked about it openly and there needs to be a real focus on reforming the regulatory process for housing construction in the state. I’m hoping that that happens.
LBBJ: Are you going to be a part of his inner circle?
Garcia: We have a great relationship and we’re close and he’s going to do a great job, so I’m happy to help him however he wants.
LBBJ: Is the city meeting its Measure A obligations to residents regarding infrastructure improvements, specifically about sidewalks, streets and alleys?
Garcia: Absolutely. I think Measure A is one of the best stories coming out of the last couple of years. We’re doing massive investments of street constructions and parks and so much else. We record it very transparently, we put out reports, we put out maps. Any resident can track what’s going to happen in the next five years of Measure A spending by going on the website and downloading maps and neighborhood information. All the data is online. You know, Measure A was very specific – it’s for public safety and for infrastructure and that’s what we’ve spent it on.
LBBJ: We’ve heard some concerns that resources are being diverted for short-term specialty projects rather than maintaining a strategic long-term commitment to roadway street infrastructure. Could an independent audit be done to assuage those concerns to confirm taxpayers’ money is being spent as promised?
Garcia: I haven’t heard these concerns, so they’re new to me. I have heard no issues as far as our infrastructure spending. In fact, I think it’s probably one of the most transparent things we do at the city, because every street that we’re doing is online and part of a master plan. So I don’t think there are issues. We’re spending more than we have ever spent by far on infrastructure. We are going through this huge public works program of rebuilding all of our streets and sidewalks. But I am a supporter of the auditor. I actually like the work she does. She and I have a great relationship, and I encourage her to audit whatever she can.
LBBJ: So she can do an audit if she wants to?
Garcia: She and her team select which audits they’re going to do. They create a work plan for the year, so they have selected what audits they’re doing. On occasion, the mayor or the council will step in and say, ‘We know you have this great work plan.’ Or, ‘Could you add this additional audit to your plan?’ And often times she is supportive of [Measure A].
And she has done that, by the way. She finished an audit [early this year] of Proposition H [2007 Long Beach Police and Fire Public Safety Oil Production Act]. So I am sure at some point she’ll do that [Measure A].
LBBJ: We’ve had a few people voice concerns. They said that the city reported $51 million is required annually over the next 10 years to improve our streets from “fair” to “good” condition. These people told us that the resources over the last couple of years have been way below $51 million. They are reporting $23.5 million for 2017, $32.5 million for 2018 and a proposed $29.6 million in the new budget year.
Garcia: Again, I have to look at exactly the number. There are so many road funds and capital funds that come into the mix. I am not sure where they are looking. We have sources coming in from Measure M and from Proposition C and the state. We need to look at the whole thing.
LBBJ: Let’s talk about crime. The latest police department numbers from June show, year to date, total crime is down 4.2% compared to the same time last year – the first six months of the calendar year. Property crime is down 7.5%. Violent crime, however, is up 9.2%. We’ve written stories about this, how violent crime jumped about 36% over a four-year period ending last calendar year. The trend seems to be continuing this year. How are we addressing this? What are we doing?
Garcia: Let’s lay out what’s happening with crime. First, you’ve got to look at the big picture of crime. In the bigger picture, overall crime continues to decrease. Even this year, it’s beginning to decrease over last year, which was the historic lowest level of crime we’ve had. Particularly, if we go back five or 10 or 20 years, the city is as safe as it’s been since we have been recording crime. The most serious of crimes, which are homicides, also are at a very low level and continue to decrease. The main issue that we have right now is around assault and aggravated assault.
LBBJ: Aggravated assault is up 26.9% year to date.
Garcia: You can connect aggravated assault with what we are seeing across the state when it comes to increased use of drugs, of fentanyl, of these new synthetic drugs. When you see our violent crime numbers, [they are] directly related to these new synthetic drugs that are making people act completely irrational, as well as from some transients that are many times using some of these drugs. That’s a serious issue. We’re adding more police officers. They’re getting new training. The truth is, there is a drug epidemic of synthetic drugs that’s happening across the country.
LBBJ: If we compared our numbers to other cities, which we haven’t done recently, would they all be up then because of the drugs and other things?
Garcia: You have to look at the overall crime rate. The overall crime rate is decreasing. So even when you add these aggravated assaults that have seen an uptick, the overall crime is still going down. What you’re seeing is that the whole city is becoming safer, but a certain type of crime, particularly aggravated assault under the violent crime category, is becoming a bigger challenge for us, particularly because of drug use. I can’t tell you what city is exactly [in] what category. In many cities the overall crime is going down, and in many cities crime is going up.
LBBJ: Do you ever talk to the sheriff about this?
Garcia: Absolutely. The sheriff will tell you right now the number one issue he is having is fentanyl – and the synthetic drugs.
LBBJ: Is this going to be one of the next big things the city has to tackle after homelessness?
Garcia: A lot of folks that are on the streets are using these drugs. And so it’s linked. In addition, we have had a lot of reforms in the state when it comes to low-level offenses and the way that people are exiting the prison system and how communities are dealing with them. I have in the past faulted the state for not providing the resources. If the state is going to reduce prison population and try to get people help – and I get that. . . . There are folks that need assistance and access to education and workers training. . . . So when they are exiting the prison system, a lot of them can’t go out and just fend for themselves. If there aren’t those kinds of wrap-around supports and cities aren’t able to support them, you’re going to have many of them go back to doing some things in the community that are not helpful. And a lot of police officers and prosecutors will tell you that with some of those low-level crime offenses, it’s hard to actually get these folks help and get them off the street. What you’re finding is with homelessness, a lot of these people who are using some of these substances, they’re on the street and there is no place for them to go. There are no homes. There’s no place for them to be in a safe environment to get better. That persists. So it is going to be a challenge for us.
LBBJ: Do you know if Gavin Newsom has a different approach to this than our current governor?
Garcia: I think Gavin is going to be focused [on it] a big way. Housing is going to be a bigger priority for him, and the development of housing across the state. He had a pretty good reputation as mayor of San Francisco. He was viewed as an innovative mayor. I think he is going to work with mayors a lot. I think that’s his interest. We’ve got to solve this issue.
LBBJ: Give us your best argument as to why voters should approve your recommended charter changes on the November ballot.
Garcia: The four charter amendments, in my opinion and that of the city auditor’s, are good government measures. And I think they improve transparency. They empower the community in new ways, and they fix some current problems that we have in the charter. I think they are reasonable. They are pretty simple. And we look forward to putting them in front of voters in November.
LBBJ: So if all four pass, including the third term [amendment], do you plan on running again?
Garcia: First of all, one thing I have learned in politics is that you never say never. However, I do think that it’s unlikely.
LBBJ: Is that breaking news?
Garcia: I don’t think it’s breaking news.
LBBJ: Have you shared that you may not run?
Garcia: I mean, no one has asked me. I don’t know how someone knows they are going to run for something that’s four years away. But I will say, at the end of this term I’ll have served this city for 12, 13 years on the council as mayor and as a councilmember. I feel like I have given to the community a lot. As far as making a decision, having just been reelected, about something happening four years from now, I am absolutely not prepared to make [a decision] today. But I think there are a lot of ways to serve your city. We’ll see what happens over the next few years. Again, I think it’s more likely not than yes, but I would never rule it out.
LBBJ: We’re a little confused about the charter amendment referring to the city auditor. She doesn’t get to audit city departments now?
Garcia: It’s not explicit in the charter. She actually does audit city departments. She has done this, but it has been through a partnership. There are different types of audits. You can audit a variety of things, but then you can also do a performance audit, which is basically looking at a department and seeing how we can perform better for taxpayers and to save resources. That is not explicit in the charter even though she has been doing them. We want to make sure that at some point in the future some other mayor or council or auditor doesn’t stop that from happening. Because if she didn’t have a responsive partner in us as a city, that could be problematic in the future.
LBBJ: I think people are misunderstanding what you’re trying to do with this recommendation. They’re thinking that audits of departments will be reported back only to the city council instead of to the community as a whole.
Garcia: That’s not accurate.
LBBJ: But that’s what we’re hearing.
Garcia: The audits will go back to everyone. I’ll tell you right now that the most independent, tough watchdog in the city is our auditor. She is not influenced by anyone. She feels strongly that this will empower her and give her more independence, and enable her to be an even stronger voice for taxpayers. I support that. And we’re going to work hard to pass it.
LBBJ: On the redistricting commission proposal, how are its members going to be selected?
Garcia: It’s independent. It’s all done just like the state process. None of them are my recommendations or the council’s. It will be done through an independent application process through the city clerk’s office. You apply, and it’s random selection. Just like the state.
LBBJ: Will there be at last one rep per council district?
Garcia: Yes. Then once the first nine are appointed, they select the remaining people, including alternates. So the council has no role in it. And just so you know, good government groups are calling it one of the best redistricting models anywhere in the country for a city.
LBBJ: At the July 21 council meeting, councilmembers delayed a request for an ordinance on clarifying the role and procedures of advisory bodies. Can you explain what that was and why it is being held up or delayed?
Garcia: Yes. City staff and the city attorney’s office have been working on clarifying language for commissions. A lot of it is cleaning up language that is currently in our municipal code. We put that forward, but there really needed to be a better process to actually talk to commissioners to ensure that we’re doing the right thing. I put that on hold. I put together a group of commissioners from different commissions that are kind of a committee of commissioners, and they are going to be meeting with the city to review some of these changes to make sure that everyone is on the same page.
Hotel Workers Ballot Measure
LBBJ: We understand that 18 of the 19 major hotels in the city have panic buttons for housekeepers. Do you think the measure that’s going to the ballot is needed, and do you think it will pass?
Garcia: First, I don’t know how many of the hotels have panic buttons.
LBBJ: We checked: 18 out of 19.
Garcia: That might be a newer development. I think we got a report recently that that wasn’t the case, but if that’s the case now, that’s great. I think that’s good. As far as the measure itself, listen, as you know, the council didn’t adopt the measure. The community went out and got the signatures, and they got more than they needed. It’s going to be on the ballot. If you ask me if I think it’s going to pass, I do think it’s going to pass. The measure is two things. You mentioned the panic button issue, which is certainly a part of it: making that a requirement. But the other part is the workload issue. They are trying to create different standards for workload.
LBBJ: Are you endorsing it?
Garcia: I have not endorsed any of those measures currently. I am not saying that I am not going to make decisions about these measures, including state measures and county measures, as they get closer. But that’s something that I’ll do later on.
LBBJ: The ballot measure requires a hotel to provide 30 days advance notice if they want someone to work overtime. How do you determine 30 days in advance that you need somebody to work overtime?
Garcia: At the end of the day, the people of the city put this measure on the ballot. Regardless of how difficult we might find pieces of the ordinance –
LBBJ: But it is impossible.
Garcia: I don’t know that it’s impossible. But I think there was an opportunity prior to this to try to come up with some kind of compromise measure that would have worked, but that wasn’t possible. So they went out and got the signatures and here we are.
[Note: During the September 4 council meeting, the city council voted 5-0, with four members leaving the floor prior to the vote, to have the city attorney draft an ordinance that included requiring all hotels and motels to provide panic buttons to their workers. The ballot measure mandates facilities with 50 or more beds to provide panic buttons.]
LBBJ: What’s going on with the Queen Mary? It seems like it has been quiet lately. We heard that there was a presentation before the city council that had been canceled recently.
Garcia: It’s back on the council agenda for September 18. It got postponed for a month because of scheduling issues. There is a lot going on at the Queen Mary. We have been back and forth with them on design. That’s where we’re at right now. We’re doing a lot of design work and designing what the development will actually look like. Our planning staff is pretty engaged. They are going to go back to the Queen Mary Task Force to update them.
LBBJ: The group still exists?
Garcia: They completed their recommendations, but we’re going to bring them back together at appropriate times to kind of check in on a few things. That’s happening soon. The council presentation is less on Queen Mary Island and more on the upgrades to the Queen Mary . . . which is seeing significant investment.
LBBJ: Do you think Urban Commons is doing well enough with the upkeep of the ship? Do you think we’ll stay on track with the timeline?
Garcia: They’re doing a great job with the upkeep of the ship. You’re never sure. I like this team, and I have been very hopeful about this team. I’ve got to tell you, what they’re doing with using that events park for the types of concerts and the level of talent that they are bringing into the city is amazing. They are bringing some of the best artists and acts and producing these amazing festival shows, which is providing a really great base of financial support for their work. I have been impressed with them so far. Have you gone on the ship lately? It looks great. The fresh paint that’s going on it, the improvements, it’s good.
Money And Elections
LBBJ: During your recent campaign, you didn’t have much opposition but you raised a lot of money?
Garcia: I raised $450,000, I think.
LBBJ: So how can you use that money, legally?
Garcia: I did spend a good chunk of it on the campaign because I take every campaign seriously. And then I have a significant amount of that money still in the campaign account.
LBBJ: So can you use that on the charter amendments?
Garcia: I could use that amount of money up until one year post the election. I can keep that money and it can be transferred to certain accounts per state rules. As far as if I can use it on the charter amendments, the answer to that is yes.
LBBJ: Last year you told us you weren’t going to do that.
Garcia: And I’m not going to do that. That’s my plan.
LBBJ: So how’s that campaign going to be funded?
Garcia: It’ll be funded like any campaign’s funded, by people who support it. But we haven’t started raising that money yet. I’m a pretty good fundraiser.
LBBJ: What about if you’re wanting to run for another office? Can you transfer the money?
Garcia: I can.
LBBJ: Have you taken a position on the parcel tax the county has on the November ballot?
Garcia: You mean the stormwater?
Garcia: I’m going to support it and the council unanimously voted to support it. This is a tough issue for us, but we benefit more than any other city because we’re at the end of the L.A. River. Stormwater issues affect us dramatically. We’re mandated by the state to spend X-amount of millions of dollars every year on stormwater improvement. So, either we’re going to spend it out of the resources that we have or, if the county is going to put on a measure that’s going to benefit us, it’d be great to get those resources. To be honest, we’ll see. I think it’s a tough measure. We’ve got to get two-thirds of the vote. So we’ll see if it passes.
New Civic Center
Mayor Robert Garcia provides his staff a tour of the 11th floor of the new city hall building, where their offices will be located. The top floor will also include the offices of city councilmembers and the city clerk’s office. The latter, Garcia pointed out, will help with the coordination of city council meeting agendas. (Business Journal photograph by Matt Fukushima Photography)
LBBJ: The civic center project seems to be moving along just fine. We want to know where your office is.
Garcia: The legislative offices are on the 11th (top) floor – similar to how they’re on the 14th floor right now at city hall – along with all the councilmembers and the city clerk, which is moving up to the legislative floor. The counter functions for the city clerk will still be on the first floor, but the administrative office will be on the legislative floor, which is great for the city because we work with her and her team preparing and organizing the agendas.
LBBJ: Are we on time and on budget?
Garcia: We are. In fact, we’re going to start moving early next year. We hope to be all moved in May-ish.
LBBJ: Who decided they wanted a round council chamber?
Garcia: That was the design. Now, the chamber itself isn’t round, it’s just that the building is. When you walk in, it’s still the same kind of feel, but it’s different. It’s not as deep.
LBBJ: In regards to the business climate, most of our residents [approximately 79%] work in other cities. How do you think we can get more Long Beach residents to work in Long Beach? What kinds of jobs do we need to attract and create?
Garcia: First, it’s important to note that the future of the workforce is a workforce living in different places and moving around – living in one place and working in another or working from home. It’s changing. It’s rapidly changing. We’re in L.A. County and we’re in a landlocked piece of land where we have Orange County next to us, Los Angeles adjacent to us, and a bunch of other cities in between. A lot of our people are going to work in other cities, especially when the economy is so strong in other commercial centers. We are 45 minutes from the downtown of the second largest city in the United States. A lot of our people are going to work in Los Angeles. They’re going to work in West L.A., they’re going to work in Orange County. And that’s okay. We obviously want to get a stronger workforce in the city, and the best way to do that is to ensure that we have quality housing. We have to have places for people to live. When you talk to people like Dan Hart at Virgin Orbit, he’ll tell you we need more housing stock so that his engineers can live in Long Beach. If we want to have more of our [workforce] live in the city, we have got to have quality housing for them to live in.
LBBJ: At the Building A Better Long Beach forum, you said we need to look at future alternative uses for the Convention Center’s big parking lot, other than parking. What would you like to see?
Garcia: I don’t have a preference. I want the process to come out with what is a shared vision of the city. But there are a lot of great opportunities. I think there’s opportunity for a sports stadium, there’s opportunity for entertainment, there’s opportunity for housing, there’s opportunity for an educational center. So there are a lot of options out there and I think the city has got to come together and figure out what works for us. And maybe it’s a variety of things for the land.
What I will tell you is that we cannot continue to have a huge undeveloped parcel of land on our waterfront and use it as a parking lot. I have believed this since day one as mayor. But we also have to be smarter about our planning and what we do next. This is a huge opportunity for us and I want to make sure that we do something really, really special.
LBBJ: We realize this is preliminary, but did you reach out to any major event organizers that depend on that lot, like the Grand Prix Association, about this idea?
Garcia: Most of the event organizers know that we’ve been talking about this, but I’ve mentioned it to convention partners and others that this is going to be a collaborative process and we know that there are some big events that happen there – Grand Prix, Pride, parking for the arena events. They’re going to be at the table. We want to make sure we do this with them at the table. Those are important events for us. We want to continue those events. We’re going to all be in it together as we figure this out.
LBBJ: Is the convention and visitors bureau staff and the convention center staff on board with this?
Garcia: They are each a partner in doing this. They know that this all has to be a partnership together.
LBBJ: Hospitality and tourism is flourishing. At your Building A Better Long Beach forum, you talked about some of the hotels that are planned. Are we overbuilding hotels? Can the market accommodate them?
Garcia: I ask myself the same question often. Again, this is market driven. There are decisions that are being made by these hotel companies that believe Long Beach is a good investment. Trust me, I have asked this question of our team many times, and the market and the people that I’ve talked to in the industry think we can sustain it. There are actually conventions that we can’t bring in because we don’t have enough hotel density, if you can believe that.
LBBJ: Don’t we also need more exhibit space to attract larger conventions?
Garcia: That’s why we’ve done things like the Pacific Ballroom and other things – to increase the footprint. But we are going to get a lot more hotels in Long Beach. We’ve got at least five projects that are somewhere in the construction-development process right now.
LBBJ: Long Beach is flush with new development. So, we’re curious, how long do you think the boom will last?
Garcia: We know that booms don’t last forever, so we are kind of pushing as hard as we can to get as much done during this boom as possible. I’m more optimistic than some folks. You get some folks that say, “Oh, in the next few years it’s going to slow down,” and I hope that we’ve got another 10 years of boom in us.
LBBJ: You’ve got the C-17 site, too.
Garcia: We do and we’re doing a big master plan for that site right now.
LBBJ: The Lab in North Long Beach will take quite a few years to develop and I’m sure there’s some other projects around the city. You’ll probably have some land opening up here and there for development.
Garcia: Yeah, so let’s keep going for at least another 10 years.
LBBJ: Moving to international trade. We’ve been on track for a record year in cargo growth at the port, but do you have concerns with respect to the potential impact of tariffs?
Garcia: Well, of course I have concerns. I think our all-over-the-place federal policy on trade right now – it’s hard to understand what’s going to happen next. What you hear from our ports and from people on the ground is that we need some level of stability so that we know what’s actually going to happen with tariffs and trade. It seems like every other day there’s some announcement about some change in our tariff program and our trade program.
The ports are doing so well, I’m like, “It ain’t broke, what are we trying to fix when it comes to trade right now?” So we’ll see. I hope it doesn’t impact all the growth that we’re having because it’s directly tied to jobs and job production. Why are we going to overburden our smaller farmers and small business owners in this country and make it more and more difficult for them to do business? I believe in a global economy and I believe in a free market as global as possible. We shouldn’t be limiting trade and we shouldn’t be putting up barriers to these relationships that have been so important for us.
You look at things like NAFTA – I am one that actually believes that NAFTA was very positive overall for the United States and for Mexico and for Canada. You look at the TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership], which was not perfect, but we could have, I think, fixed what would have been a great opportunity for us to do some incredible new trade agreements with much of the world. That got shredded. So we’ll see where we go, but we’re going to continue to move forward and hopefully continue to see good numbers.
LBBJ: Tell us about your vision for another of the city’s major assets – the airport. Can you tell us a bit about your Green Airport initiative?
Garcia: There are two big things happening. One is that we’re starting phase two of our terminal improvements – new screening, new baggage, the historic terminal is being fixed up, rental cars are being moved. The facility itself will finally get finished. And then we want the airport to be a great sustainable facility like we’ve done with our green port policy. There’s an opportunity for us to go much more electric, to be much more sustainable to ensure that our airport is a green leader in airports. That’s the initiative that we’ve entrusted to the Long Beach Airport Advisory Commission, as well as Sustainability Commission. That’s something we look forward to the next few years.
LBBJ: Do you know if there are any other airports that have this kind of a model?
Garcia: I think we would be one of the leading models in the country.
LBBJ: Let’s talk about small business. It seems like we have a lot of small businesses closing, especially boutique shops. Second Street has seen a turnover. Several other parts of the city have seen a little bit too, although it’s not as visible as it is on 2nd Street. We hear that small business owners, and nonprofits, are challenged by rent increases, minimum wage increases, other operational costs, and they just can’t stay in business. Plus, the Internet affects retailers, especially for your mom-and-pop shops. Do you see anything happening over the next five to 10 years? Is there a different model for these small stores or are they going to vanish?
Garcia: I think it’s tough to be a small business owner, particularly in the retail sector. What you see – let’s take 2nd Street for example. Yes, we’ve had turnover but many of those storefronts don’t stay empty long. They’re replaced by something else, a different model. I think that the Internet has been the most disruptive thing to small businesses. Think about what you can do just from your home. I live in a loft in the downtown and I compare the number of packages that we used to see when we first moved in to now. Daily, there are dozens of packages from Amazon, from stores, food. I mean, there are people that don’t even leave their homes. They just order everything. All their food is delivered directly to them. I know people that only shop online. They moved all of their shopping online and that is going to have a huge impact on small businesses.
I think that we’ve got to continue to adjust and see how the Internet and online marketplace continues to impact us. It’s affecting us in huge ways. That’s why the days of the large superstores – we used to think those were going to kill small businesses. Well, those are all going away. I personally try to go out to small businesses all the time – buy from small businesses and eat out at small businesses. I post about it, probably to the annoyances of a lot of people, on social media, but that’s what I try to do.
Second Term Goals
LBBJ: What goals have you set for your second?
Garcia: The most important thing I’m going to do is I’m going to get married very soon, which I’m very excited about. I know it doesn’t relate to my mayoral tenure, but that’s the biggest thing happening in my life.
My goals for my second term beyond getting married are to continue the economic development boom that’s happening. I want to strengthen it and continue to be a pro-development mayor that supports these investments. I want to build more housing and density in the downtown. I want to continue to rebuild the infrastructure of our streets across the city and implement our Measure A dollars so that we are fixing these streets.
I think we have got to have a renewed focus on some of our public parks and open spaces to ensure that they are good places for families and young people. I want to make sure that we’re attracting high-quality jobs, and that the university continues to be supported and it grows. All those things are important to me. And most importantly, I want to make sure that these safety numbers continue to improve and that people are safe.
I think most people judge themselves by the question of whether the city is better off when you leave it, than when you found it. I believe that today we’re meeting that metric and I want to make sure that continues so that when I’m done with this term, I can look back and be very happy about what we were able to contribute as good stewards of the city.