Acknowledging that they will have to overcome considerable skepticism, Inglewood business leaders are proposing transforming downtown into an international business center and tourist attraction.
They want to use revenue from an increased hotel tax--expected to total $1 million a year--to create a conference/visitors bureau to attract business and tourism with a Sports Walk of Fame and an international market.
The City Council has agreed to discuss the idea, although city officials say the money has already been budgeted for other things.
Even the chief lobbyist for the plan admits that it must overcome formidable obstacles, including the city's image.
During a walk downtown last week, Roger Scott, executive vice president of the Inglewood/Airport Area Chamber of Commerce, waved his arm and said, "You could shoot a cannonball down the sidewalk here and not hit anybody."
There was moderate automobile traffic and a sprinkling of pedestrians along Market Street between Manchester Boulevard and Regent Street. Next to small restaurants and clothing stores were shuttered storefronts, an abandoned mini-mall and an aging movie theater showing Spanish-language Westerns. It was clear the street had seen better times.
Another Scene Envisioned
But Scott energetically conjures up images of a different scene in 1995: Tourists pointing cameras at each other on the pedestrian Market Street Mall. Crowded sidewalk cafes offering a stew of languages and cuisines. Duty-free stores doing brisk business. Jitney buses unloading airline workers from nearby Los Angeles International Airport, businessmen from convention centers and international banks, and sightseers on their way to the stretch of sidewalk where Magic Johnson high-tops are immortalized in concrete.
"We're looking at what the city can do for itself," Scott said. "None of the things we're proposing are pie in the sky. We need a partnership between the chamber and the city to achieve them."
At last Tuesday's City Council meeting, Scott and the new Chamber of Commerce president, James Moyer, asked council members to delay increasing the city's 9% hotel tax to 10% until they consider using the added revenue for the conference/visitors bureau.
The council introduced the tax increase ordinance anyway, scheduling a final vote for July 20. But Councilmen Daniel Tabor and Anthony Scardenzan expressed interest in Moyer's presentation and urged city officials to meet with the business leaders.
In the past 10 years, Inglewood's downtown shopping district has lost major retailers, including J. C. Penney, Boston Stores and Sears. Many Inglewood residents now shop at malls in Fox Hills and Hawthorne, despite efforts by the city to improve downtown parking and transportation.
The Chamber of Commerce's wide-ranging plan, which Scott emphasizes is "embryonic," would call for the conference/visitors bureau to aggressively promote Inglewood to banks and businesses as a "gateway to the airport" and sports center.
Key projects would include the Sports Walk of Fame, modeled on Hollywood's Walk of Fame, a proposal that has been discussed by city leaders for several years, and redevelopment of Market Street along the lines of Olvera Street or Little Tokyo. Another would be a 4,000-seat airport convention center with high-tech video communications systems that is being studied by the city of Los Angeles. Scott hopes it will be pushed out of that city because of the victory of anti-growth candidates in recent elections.
"We have a moral obligation to the community to explore these ideas," Scardenzan said. "Inglewood is at a key point in its development. People who want to see Inglewood improve will be interested. The first step is to bring in a consultant, an expert who can advise us. We should also contact foreign consulates and consider giving incentives to foreign businesses to locate here."
Scardenzan and Scott conceded that some outsiders may scoff at the idea of Inglewood attracting tourists because of what they called an unfair negative image of the city.
"In any city you can find graffiti and crime . . . ," Scott said. "In the four years I've lived here, I haven't had any problems."
City Manager Paul Eckles said he plans to discuss the proposals with business leaders, but noted that the city has already earmarked funds from the proposed tax increase to other projects. He also asked some tough, basic questions.
"What's a tourist in Inglewood going to do?" Eckles asked. "Who are the beneficiaries? It's really a budget question. Are there businesses that agree that there's potential and are willing to invest in these projects?"
The idea of drawing hotel and convention facilities to the airport vicinity is more realistic, Eckles said. Inglewood already is working on that, he said.
Along Market Street, merchants gave varying opinions of the chamber's vision of the future.
"I don't think anything would help the area," said Al Corbin of LeRoy Jewelers, which is going out of business. "It's gone downhill. The wrong type of people are coming in. Dress shops, shoes, swap meets, welfare."
Across the street, Truman Talley was more optimistic as he chopped avocados in his health food restaurant.
"The climate is good for Inglewood," Talley said. "I've got pilots that come in here from the airport, doctors, attorneys. You've already got an international mix on the street, black, Jewish, Korean. The people here could make it work."