How to solve South L.A.'s staggering unemployment problem: Four approaches, only one can win

Four vastly different plans for job growth in L.A.'s Council District 8

The four City Council candidates vying to represent Los Angeles' 8th District in the March 3 election have starkly different approaches to economic development there.

And that’s the key issue. This is a district in need of jobs.

It’s not that there is no money there. The district’s oddly shaped northwest corner includes Baldwin Hills and abuts unincorporated View Park, areas of wealth and prestige, sometimes referred to as "the Black Beverly Hills." The southeast corner brushes up against Watts, a neighborhood struggling with poverty and related urban ills and the locus of countless governmental failures for at least the half-century following the riots of 1965.

In between, there are tidy homes, under-performing commercial corridors and the highest unemployment rate in the city. Too little Baldwin Hills money supports businesses along streets like Vermont, Western and Manchester, all of which are marked by vast empty lots that have remained vacant since the fires and violence of 1992 and buildings where grocery stores and other retails outlets came and went.

The four candidates’ prescriptions for jobs and economic development here are starkly different -- and  thought-provoking.

For Robert Cole, the problem starts with illegal dumping and bad city service. “Nothing’s going to come into this community until we change the way this community looks,” he said Saturday morning at a candidate debate at Barack Obama Global Preparation Academy.

“It’s important to make sure the community is clean,” Cole said. “If it’s not clean. We’re not going to be able to attract jobs.”

That’s a familiar argument -- one made by candidates two years ago running to represent the 9th District, just to the east, where the problems of poverty and blight are, if anything, even more acute. It describes a cycle of disinvestment: Stores flee, local workers are laid off, political engagement shrinks, the city turns its back -- and new stores and other businesses don’t give the area a second look. They’re happy to take the money of the rich folks in the hills and the others in the flats, but those customers will have to come to “nicer” parts of town, like Culver City.

Is there any investment that government can make that can so transform the appearance and feel of the district that businesses will follow up with their own investments? It’s an open question. There have been government and private investments, but too little of either to reverse the district’s flagging fortunes. There are only seven grocery stores, according to candidate Forescee Hogan-Rowles -- and 225 mini-markets “that are really liquor stores.”

The most hopeful government investment on the horizon may be the expanding Expo Line lightrail and the Crenshaw Line, not due to break ground for another two years. But most of the candidates express reservations about the Crenshaw line and say they want to stop it or delay it -- until they can turn the planned street-level stretches into underground subways.

“It’s not over ’til it’s under,” Hogan-Rowles says of the Crenshaw line, which will link the district to Los Angeles International Airport.

Marqueece Harris-Dawson called for a stop to rail construction “until it goes underground.”

For Bobbie Jean Anderson, private investment requires public inducements in the form of tax and other incentives. That’s an argument that ought to be familiar in much of Los Angeles, where hotels and developers lobby for prizes like tax exemptions and relief from requirements that gobble up valuable real estate, like adequate parking space.

Anderson also argues that there are public investments to be had, even after the demise of redevelopment agencies, if only leaders have the savvy to find them. One example: LANI, the Los Angeles Neighborhood Initiative.

Hogan-Rowles cites her role as president and chief executive of RISE Financial Pathways, a micro-investment firm. That’s how you turn the district around, she told The Times editorial board: by helping existing businesses stay afloat and expand, and by getting new ones started. Small businesses create a pattern of success in the community and attract investment from larger firms with payrolls to fill.

It’s an approach that resonates across a wide spectrum of voters -- conservatives, who gravitate toward private-sector investment and self help; and community members who want better economic times but chafe against the prospect of gentrification and would prefer homegrown business to outside firms changing the character of the neighborhoods.

Still, Hogan-Rowles wouldn't disagree with Cole's prescription either. At the opening of her campaign headquarters late last month, a customer from a neighboring business walked in and asked the candidate about her top priority. "Clean this place up!" Hogan-Rowles replied.

And then there is Harris-Dawson, whose approach, depending on your point of view, exhibits refreshing candor and insight or an excessive reliance on public obligations. Or both.

In the 8th District, Harris-Dawson told the editorial board, jobs mean public sector jobs. City Hall and other government agencies must restore positions lost in the Great Recession -- and then hire people from the 8th District and similarly under-served areas to fill them. Forget bending over backward to get businesses to come. That has never worked.

“Instead of attracting business,” Harris-Dawson said at the Saturday candidates’ forum, “I want to create customers.”

Put people to work on public payrolls and get money on their pockets.

“The businesses will chase the money,” he said. “If we’re customers, and we’re good-paying customers, the businesses will come here.”

There is a second -- and perhaps final -- candidate forum at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Mark Ridley-Thomas Constituent Service Center, 8475 S. Vermont Ave. It is being hosted by the Empowerment Congress Southeast Area Neighborhood Development Council.

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