March 27, 2000 - From the March, 2000 issue

San Fernando Valley Economic Alliance Has A New Leader

The San Fernando Valley Economic Alliance has done perhaps more than any single group to raise the Valley's profile and establish its identity, largely under the leadership of former CEO Bill Allen. His new replacement, Bruce Ackerman, has had a fast start, as the Alliance recently sponsored "Summit 2000" to highlight the results of what they call the first-ever survey of the Valley's demographics as a whole. TPR was pleased to speak with Bruce--who long held a similar position in the San Gabriel Valley--about his priorities, his outlook for the Valley, and whether secession is the answer to the Valley's concerns.


Bruce Ackerman

Bruce, you recently replaced Bill Allen as CEO of the Economic Alliance of the San Fernando Valley. Would you share with our readers your background--what you have been engaged in related to civic entrepreneurship in Southern California? And what attracted you to this challenging job?

I've had experience with a number of chambers of commerce in the region. In 1993, I started my own consulting company and, through that, did strategic planning for what was then the San Gabriel Valley Commerce of Cities Consortium. And that led to me serving as President and CEO of what became the San Gabriel Valley Economic Partnership.

We did some incredible things there. One of the most important was developing a regional marketing program. The San Gabriel Valley has always been the "Rodney Dangerfield" of valleys. It doesn't have a bad image; it has no image. Yet it's huge-30 incorporated cities and 1,800,000 people. It's bigger than the San Fernando Valley in population, business, and geography, but nobody had ever looked at it as a region. So we championed the concept of regionalism-cities working together to improve the area without losing their individuality.

As for this job, Bill Allen was doing very similar things here. I admire Bill's entrepreneurial spirit. He really increased the entertainment community's involvement, and I liked the way the organization was structured and how it was doing outreach. Through the Irvine Foundation's Civic Entrepreneur Summits, Bill and I worked together on the LAEDC's leadership panel and we realized that we both think "outside the box" about economic development in the region.

What are your priorities for the Alliance as you begin?

The first priority is to continue the incredible momentum that Bill Allen built for this organization.

I'm also analyzing where the Alliance is going. We currently have five primary initiatives, which all seem to be on target right now. But we need to continue canvassing the opinions of both businesses and residents to determine whether we need to adjust those initiatives in order to stay in sync with the needs of this community.

What are those five initiatives?

1) Education and Workforce Development; 2) Business Assistance: "Retention, Attraction, Expansion"; 3) Quality Of Life: This involves using community indicators and maintaining a dialogue with the Valley public to determine what's critical to them; 4) The Valley Information Project: We are now the lone keeper of information for the S.F. Valley and we want to make that information as accessible as possible; 5) Regional Marketing: We're marketing the Valley as the "Valley of the Stars." There's great energy for this initiative. For instance, this year's Woodland Hills Heart Run was the "Valley of the Stars Heart Run." Our Fair is now the "Valley of the Stars Fair." Even American Express is using it.

Your organization just sponsored a conference called "Summit 2000," to which the Daily News recently devoted its entire front page. Tell us what you learned there. How do you see it being used as a benchmark for what's to come in the future?

We learned statistics about the San Fernando Valley that had never been compiled before. Because 75% of the region is part of the City of Los Angeles, it's very difficult to isolate statistics-the City of L.A. keeps records for the City as a whole, but does not separate the 40% that lies in the Valley. We've never before had a true figure on the number of Valley businesses, the number of people living here, the school systems-critical information for forecasting and strategic planning.

The overpowering Daily News headline on that issue was "Seizing Power: Valley Leaders Launch Effort To Guide Growth Apart From Downtown L.A.'s Control." How closely does the headline relate to what the Summit produced?

Aside from the glamorous headline, the fact is that we want to turn this information that we've never had before into knowledge, and it's true that knowledge can become power-but only "power" as the ability to cultivate change that will benefit the community.

For example, we now know that it's more expensive to do business in Los Angeles than in Glendale, Burbank, San Fernando or Calabasas. If we want to retain Valley businesses, we need to know that. And having that knowledge allows us to communicate with the City of L.A.'s leadership more effectively.

Holding the information does give us a certain amount of power, but we're not hoarding it-we want people to get their hands on it. And that knowledge-becoming-power will hopefully shape public policy here for years to come.

Two of the challenges the study highlighted were the lack of space for growth and worsening traffic concerns. These issues coincide with a Sunday New York Times story about Newhall and Valencia and the sprawl that results from an inability to find land to grow. Do you think people in the Valley-known as a bastion of single-family homes on large lots-are open to dealing with the growth challenges of a dense metropolis?

I think they are. A recent public opinion survey that we commissioned asked: "Would you support more industrial development if it meant more jobs for the San Fernando Valley?" We purposely didn't say "high technology" or any of the soft, acceptable words-"industrial development" connotes things like smokestacks to most people-and still, 60% said "yes."

Land-use will become more critical. We don't have open space, but we do have a lot of older, underutilized space. We need to form partnerships between the development community and our cities in order to reuse that land-maybe converting it to high-tech parks or improved industrial parks.

During the secession movement, the San Fernando Valley has criticized the City of L.A. for not being responsive to the Valley's needs. How interconnected is the Valley to the City and the region? And can the Valley proceed with economic development in isolation of the City and region?

You can't proceed in isolation-you have to be involved and engaged.

The Economic Alliance has not taken nor will take a position on secession in the foreseeable future. However, our leadership is committed to as much local control as possible. We represent five cities, and when we bring a business to the City of L.A. for assistance, we need the same level of response that we get in the other four cities.

We are part of the City of Los Angeles. We can throw stones, but that doesn't serve any purpose. I'm more interested in making the system work.

The Mayor and his supporters hoped that charter reform along with neighborhood councils would relieve some of the pressure for Valley secession. But Hal Bernson, who represents the Valley, said in an interview with our newsletter: "Charter reform was never intended to appease Valley residents. While it will probably change the complexion of our City government in the future, it was strictly a power play on the Mayor's part." Are charter reform and neighborhood councils a way of giving back some power, and will the changes in the Charter resonate among your constituents?

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I don't know whether charter reform will work. But I do think that the City of L.A.'s current size and structure is unmanageable. Though I'm not for or against secession, I would like to create smaller, more manageable community clusters in the San Fernando Valley with representation to match.

Other cities in Southern California function very nicely in that 100,000 to 150,000 population range, so we know it works-we just need to recreate it within Los Angeles.

Tie your experience with the 30 cities of the San Gabriel Valley together with the post-Prop. 13 environment in the San Fernando Valley. How do you meld regional concerns with a sense of local control given the limitations of our State-local fiscal relationships? What governmental architecture would best support this effort?

It's certainly not the current system, with cities so dependent on sales tax. I wholeheartedly support a shift between sales tax revenue and the property tax base.

If a business wanted to locate in the San Gabriel Valley, we helped them regardless of the city-we were a "border-blind" coalition. Cities understand that if a business locates in one city, the adjacent city will benefit, but will also be impacted. They realize they need to work together.

On the other hand, if a city has a choice between a business with 1,000 high quality jobs and one that brings sales tax revenue, it's a no-brainer. The city will only get tax revenue from the sales tax generator. Until we change that, the emphasis won't be on expanding jobs. Every city would like to focus more on high quality employment, but they can't support their infrastructure without the sales tax revenue.

Bringing this commentary home to the San Fernando Valley and the task facing the leadership of the Alliance, how would smaller governmental units benefit Valley constituents and our region?

Unless we change the tax structure, I don't think it will. If the San Fernando Valley was suddenly 30 cities as opposed to five, would we have the same problems with sales tax and job growth? Absolutely. The nice thing about that larger number is there's much more local control.

Regionalism doesn't mean sacrificing individualism. Each city has its own identity, its own strengths and its own agenda. But they also need to understand the power of a regional impact.

For instance, the San Gabriel Valley has 30 very strong, independent cities, and never really needed the image of a region-so it never had one. The San Fernando Valley is just the opposite-it's always had a regional identity because none of the individual communities had a strong sense of identity. That's not a criticism; they're just not their own governing entity.

How do the issues of transportation and education fit into your agenda for local control and regionalism in the San Fernando Valley?

Transportation is critical. It was the number one problem cited in our recent public opinion survey. In the business survey, it was identified as one of the top two concerns-the ability not only to transport goods and services, but to get employees to and from work.

The solution is to combine innovative modes of public transportation-a rubberized bus feeder service, a rubberized light rail system, and better utilization of Metro rail. We also need to look at the freeways-with today's technology, having bottlenecks like the 405-101 is ridiculous.

Education and employment are closely related. One major concern cited by employers is their inability to recruit qualified local employees. They're concerned that today's graduates won't be qualified for tomorrow's jobs.

But all the surveys show remarkable optimism. Valley businesses are planning to expand-both people and capital-over the next two to five years.

A year from now, what would be progress on your various initiatives?

For our marketing initiative, I'd like to see a lot more "piggybacking." I want more companies to utilize "Valley of the Stars." I want to pull more deals together like the Heart Run and the Fair-because we don't spend money on those. We could mount a $10 million advertising campaign using those opportunities.

We also want to strengthen the banner campaign and look at more billboard opportunities. "Valley of the Stars" is not just entertainment-focused-a "star" is someone who excels in any chosen field and we want to focus on them as well.

For our Business Assistance Program, we want to know how many businesses we meet with, how many we help retain or grow, and how many jobs we actually impact. Our goal is to help at least 100 businesses in the coming year. And based on other regions, we can grow the Valley economy by at least 5,000 jobs.

Tying in with the marketing program, we want people to know that the Economic Alliance is the one phone call they need to make for business assistance. We don't necessarily deliver the end product or service, but we know where to get assistance.

We know what programs work and how to implement them-we just need to establish more of them.

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© 2019 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.