Containers are picked up and dropped off at the Port of Long Beach's Pier G, Thursday, June 10, 2021. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

The Port of Long Beach is aiming to set an example of inclusion to agencies across the country through a new initiative: the Equity in Infrastructure Project.

Together with four other organizations—the Chicago Transit Authority, the Denver International Airport, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority—the port signed onto the four-year project in December. Through the program, the five agencies have committed to creating more contracting opportunities for historically underutilized businesses, including those owned by women and people of color.

The goal of the project is to use these agencies’ resources to help reduce the racial wealth gap by broadening the pool of businesses that are considered for major contracts.

“We’re very excited about this proposition,” Port of Long Beach Executive Director Mario Cordero told me earlier this month, “and hope to move the needle with regard to furthering what we need to do under the concepts of equity and inclusion.”

While the Port of Long Beach has touted its status as a “first mover” on this pledge, I was curious to learn more about what this will look like in practice—the port’s announcement recognized the need to be more inclusive, but it lacked details on how the program would work and what success would look like.

To start, I asked Cordero whether there are any existing metrics on how many historically underutilized businesses the Port of Long Beach currently works with.

“We don’t have any specific numbers or percentiles here,” he told me. “I think what the pledge does do is: You exercise good faith and best practices to make sure people are aware and these businesses are aware that we want to make sure that we address qualified contractors that are out there and of course give them the opportunity to work with us.”

OK, but what do “good faith and best practices” look like? And more importantly, how does the port know those best practices will achieve the goal of a more diverse group of businesses working with the port?

Based on my conversation with Cordero, it seems that the port is approaching the project with a laudable goal in mind, but the agency doesn’t definitively know whether the project will make a meaningful difference.

Still, it’s worth a try. And with a decade-long, $4 billion capital improvement program underway, the Port of Long Beach seems to be as good of a testing ground as any to figure out the best methods through this kind of project.

“The Port of Long Beach has invested, and continues to invest, in capital improvement projects,” Cordero said. “So for this fiscal year, those monies are certainly considerable here, and in that regard, we want to make sure that as we move forward with the various opportunities that there are in procurement … that we consider the fact that we need to make sure that we have equity and inclusion in every aspect of or operations.”

As for what the port has done so far to live up to its pledge, Cordero told me that he’s directed staff to put together a diversity procurement team, whose goal is to increase outreach to historically underutilized businesses and help them with the contracting process. He has also begun discussions with other agencies, including the Port of Los Angeles, to get them on board with the project.

“We’ve also signed on to bring on board other public agencies, so we’ve had those discussions about bringing in other port authorities to the conversation,” Cordero said, “so that’s taking place as we speak.”

I reached out to the folks at the Port of Los Angeles to get their take on the program. Phillip Sanfield, a spokesperson for POLA, told me he didn’t have specific details on whether the port would join the project. But, he said, “we have a robust diversity program for contracts that has been in place for years.”

Sanfield pointed to the Los Angeles port’s Small Business Enterprise Program, which launched in 2007 as one way to help create “an environment that provides all individuals and businesses open access to the business opportunities at the Harbor Department in a manner that reflects the diversity of the City of Los Angeles,” according to a port summary of the initiative.

Since its debut, Sanfield said, minority and women participants have doubled.

As for the Equity in Infrastructure Project, it’s still early days for the Port of Long Beach. The implementation plan seems amorphous at the moment, but the port has until December 2025 to—hopefully—see the results of the endeavor.

When I asked Cordero how he would gauge those results, he said, “I think success would be measured by the opportunities we create for businesses who have never been able to partake in the various procurement contracts that we have here in Long Beach.”

“We want to make sure that as we move forward, we continue to emphasize those contractors that historically have not had, for whatever reason, the opportunity to work within the port,” Cordero added. “So I think once we look back a couple years from now, we’ll say, ‘You know, we were able to move the needle with some of these (historically underutilized businesses).’”

“I think that’s how we’ll measure success here in the years to come.”

Hayley Munguia

Hayley Munguia is editor of the Long Beach Business Journal.