Ahead of his Grow Long Beach economic showcase where Mayor Rex Richardson announced Ford would develop electric vehicles here, Richardson sat down with the Business Journal to talk about challenges facing local businesses and why he thinks the city’s economic future is bright. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Long Beach Business Journal: You launched Grow Long Beach last year. A large part of this was the goal of replacing dwindling oil revenue with an economic boost from tourism, health care, aerospace and other industries. Have there been any star industries in the last year?

Rex Richardson: There’s some real opportunities in tourism that have more immediate impacts on our budget. We’re seeing, for the first time in the Queen Mary’s history, the Queen Mary is showing strong numbers with potential for growth and real interest in development around that space.

We announced an idea last year of a temporary amphitheater and at the State of the City, we announced that we’ll be prepared to open up the temporary amphitheater next summer.

What does that mean, for us? It means that it brings more people into Long Beach to support our local economy, stay in our hotel rooms, support our small businesses.

I will also say advanced manufacturing — that includes Space Beach and other things — is really showing some real promise here.

LBBJ: What’s the one business that we lost this year that you were really sad to see go? And what’s one that you’re super excited about arriving?

RR: I really tried to save Shady Grove Foods. Because it was good. They have a thick piece of bacon‚ it’s like steak. They’ve got a barbecue smoked meatloaf. I really liked that place.

But the reality is, there are costs and challenges with having a brick and mortar. Their history was that they were a pop-up, and they made that jump during the pandemic. And there were some challenges during the pandemic and costs they weren’t prepared for. They’re still a business, but they’re going back to their pop-up approach.

I’m excited about new opportunities. Advanced manufacturing, we’ve placed a big focus on. We’re proud to be able to project at least 1,000 new advanced manufacturing and engineering jobs in Long Beach over the next year, year and a half. One of them we’re proud to reintroduce to the city — they’re putting their new headquarters for electric vehicles here — Ford Motor Company is coming to Long Beach.

As it relates to research and development, Long Beach is becoming a hub. We already have the largest R&D facility in America with Mercedes-Benz and now we’ll have Ford Motor Company, which is really casting an eye to a bigger commitment to Long Beach in the years to come. So we’re really excited about that.

Long Beach Mayor Rex Richardson in his office at City Hall in Long Beach, Wednesday, June 12, 2024. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

LBBJ: What are some other companies that you are trying to lure into Long Beach and how are you pitching them?

RR: We’ve been working together to help curate advanced manufacturing companies that bring high-quality jobs to the city that pay great wages and allow people to buy a home and live in our community.

We may not be competing for $20 an hour jobs. We’re going to compete for the $45 and up jobs. Austin, Texas; Denver, Colorado; Phoenix, Arizona — those are the communities that Long Beach is competing with.

We’re not necessarily competing with Fort Worth for warehouse jobs. We’re competing for high-end, high-quality, advanced manufacturing jobs, where a welder can make 45 bucks an hour coming out of Long Beach City College.

We talk about the quality of place in Long Beach — how you have a world-class school district. We’re a city that believes in housing, and we invest in housing. We talk about the ecosystem of businesses that already exist here because that’s the biggest selling point. When they see other companies that are growing locate in Long Beach, people want to be a part of that.

And we’re in sunny Southern California with 9 miles of coastline, 7 1/2 miles of beach. If you’re a company, and you’re debating going into Phoenix, Arizona, or Austin, Texas, or Long Beach, we’re winning, we’re winning that prospect.

LBBJ: The growth isn’t happening fast enough to offset all the oil revenue that’s going away, so the city is talking about things like raising taxes and raising fees. In the long run, are those taxes and fees going to go away if Grow Long Beach is successful?

RR: Long Beach is in a big transition. We’ve been an oil providence for 100 years. And we’ve benefited. The Queen Mary was bought with oil proceeds. Much of the coastline was developed through Tidelands Funds. And the reality is the shifting legislative environment around oil production makes it less certain for us to depend on that revenue source moving forward.

Grow Long Beach and identifying more sustainable revenue sources is a part of preparing our city for a more sustainable future. If we know that oil is going away, and we don’t know the timetable — it could be five years, it can be 10 years — we should prepare for it now.

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LBBJ: At what point would you be in favor of cutting back city services to deal with the budget deficit as opposed to looking for these revenue opportunities?

RR: I want to enhance city services. I want response times to be faster. I want to continue to invest in staffing.

We’ve had vacancies. Those are positions that are funded to deliver services and better response times that haven’t been filled. What I don’t want to do is cancel out vacant positions like other jurisdictions have done. I want to actually fill those positions.

This is really about what Long Beach we want to have for the future. Do we want to have a city where we are fighting to hold on to the basic services to meet the needs of our residents? Or are we going to be a city that addresses pending challenges head-on and presents a vision, an alternative that allows us to continue to invest in quality of life?

My kids play soccer at Molina Park and Heartwell Park. I want there to be grass on the fields that they play on. I want, when our residents have an emergency and call for a paramedic, for there to be adequate resources for the paramedic to show up on time.

These are things that are possible. We have a well-managed city, we know what to do. But we have to get ahead of the challenges with oil.

LBBJ: There has been incremental progress on homelessness. It’s down 2% in the last count, but that has not assuaged frustration with highly visible problems like encampments. How long should residents and business owners expect to wait before they start seeing a difference when they look on the street?

RR: We’re seeing a real difference. When you expand your capacity to actually get out and meet people where they are, you make a difference. We’re hitting 16 locations a week now — 16 locations of chronic encampments.

When we’re recognized by the state with encampment resolution dollars for delivering results at MacArthur Park, that in turn turns into new resources for Downtown: chronic encampments like Billie Jean King Library, Lincoln Park and Harvey Milk Park. That’s showing results.

It’s always a race of how many people are entering homelessness versus exiting homelessness. And last year, we saw it begin to balance out. Instead of a 62% increase, it went down to a 4.6% increase. So we celebrated that because the rate of people entering homelessness had slowed and began to balance out. And then this year, we saw in 2023, that trend continue, where fewer people entered homelessness in Long Beach than then exited for the first time in seven years. To go from 62% to 4.2% to negative 2% is a very clear trend line.

Long Beach Mayor Rex Richardson overlooking the city from his office at City Hall in Long Beach, Wednesday, June 12, 2024. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

LBBJ: Why isn’t it happening faster? Why is it only 2%?

RR: People can focus on whatever statistic to make you feel good or make you feel bad. But the reality is, when you have a rate of increase almost two-to-one and now you’ve brought that down to where it is now in a place where you’re managing and chipping away at it, that is progress, and we’re swimming upstream. You’re not seeing numbers like that across the country.

LBBJ: The city promised the state it would diversify the housing mix to put more affordable housing into well-off areas. There’s already been backlash from residents in the Cal Heights neighborhood and near Bryant Elementary. What’s your response to criticism that denser developments don’t belong in suburban neighborhoods?

RR: We have to affirmatively further fair housing. That is a requirement of government. We have to make sure that our housing plans meet federal and state law.

Long Beach has some history of economic segregation. We had racist covenants in our city; we had redlining in our city. It’s important that we acknowledge that history. And we also acknowledge that we have a responsibility to correct it.

We have to understand that housing belongs in every community. Can we maintain character? Absolutely. Can a historic district also bear housing? Absolutely. I think we have to bring our residents along, to work with them to make sure that they understand that we can maintain their character and their walkability and the things they value in their community.

I think there’s a lot of stigmas around who actually qualifies for affordable housing. And when they realize it’s the mailman, when they realize it’s your teacher, and these are working people in Long Beach and Long Beach’s population, I think it goes a long way.

Our goal is to build housing that is affordable for our residents, to address the rising cost of housing in our community and make sure that people have a place to live with dignity in our city.

If we can do that and also maintain the character of our neighborhoods and make sure that we’re not dividing our community, I think that’s a good thing. We should strive to bring people along through the process, but realistically, you’ll never get 100% of our residents on board with anything.

Jeremiah Dobruck is managing editor of the Long Beach Post. Reach him at jeremiah@lbpost.com or @jeremiahdobruck on Twitter.