COMPTON — Each weekday morning, thousands of workers stream off the 91 Freeway here and go to jobs with some of the best-known names in business.
Xerox, Toyota, Nissan, Northrop and the headquarters for Ralphs Grocery Co. share a Compton address with more than 100 other companies in four flourishing industrial parks. There are furniture makers, electronics importers, tire distributors and computer firms, some with only a handful of employees, others with 100 or more.
"If you look at a map, it's the exact epicenter of our operations in Southern California," said Byron Allumbaugh, chairman of the 126-store Ralphs chain. "Plus it has wonderful freeway access. . . . The location is absolutely perfect."
But when night falls, the vast majority of the workers file out the way they came, leaving behind one of the region's most economically depressed cities.
"If you stand over there in the evening," City Councilman Robert L. Adams said recently, "you can see them going on the freeway. They don't live in this community."
In predominantly black and increasingly Latino Compton, unemployment runs about 12.1%, more than double the most recent rate for Los Angeles County. State employment figures do not isolate the degree of black joblessness, but as chairman of a city task force on employment and labor, Adams believes it could reach as high as 40%.
So instead of viewing the businesses as a valued local resource, Adams takes offense at the influx and exodus that swirls around the manicured warehouses and manufacturing plants flanking the freeway from Long Beach to Carson.
"The firms along that 91 corridor, no, they haven't participated (in city affairs)," Adams said sourly. "As far as hiring citizens of this community, (their record) has been very poor."
In recent weeks, as the council has struggled to shore up slumping budget revenues and still satisfy a community demand that more police be hired to combat crime and gang violence, Adams and others have complained that major firms in the 10-square-mile city are doing little to lend a hand.
When business leaders showed up at City Hall last month and helped block what some officials considered a vital 40% increase in the utility-users tax, Councilman Floyd A. James accused the freeway firms in particular of delivering "a slap in the face" to taxpayers. The firms profit from Compton's strategic location and municipal services, he said, without showing an equivalent concern for its economic distress.
"I think it's time for the big corporations to start making some commitments to employing people in our community," said James, one of several business and government leaders interviewed for this report. "It's just good business to try to employ the unemployed in the city" where a company has operations.
"We definitely use their products," James said. "We buy their clothes, we eat their food--and Ralphs doesn't even have a market in the city."
Business leaders counter that they already help keep Compton afloat by paying millions of dollars in county property taxes, some of which flow back to the city, plus millions more in utility-user taxes and a total of $950,000 in license fees.
"I'd hate to see their plight without us," said Richard Sinclair, president of Executive Office Concepts, a maker of business furniture with headquarters along the freeway.
Ralphs, which chairman Allumbaugh said is probably the city's largest corporate taxpayer, said the company wrote checks to the city and county last year totaling almost $1 million, of which $445,000 went directly to Compton.
"We're paying everything that's imposed upon us," he said, although city officials complain that the company has fought them for years over the amount of its business license fee.
Gene Brown, public relations director for Ralphs, said the company once had a grocery in Compton at Long Beach Boulevard at Alondra Avenue, but it was closed years ago when it "just simply did not do the business" and stores around it were dying out.
As far as community involvement, Allumbaugh said, "We participate in all the civic things that Compton has done." The company has sponsored local high school students on field trips, made contributions to neighboring California State University, Dominguez Hills, and continues to be active in various food donation efforts. Brown serves on the regional board of United Way, and Allumbaugh last year served as fund-raising chairman.
And "we certainly meet all of the equal rights and fair employment" requirements, Allumbaugh continued, noting that 25% of Ralphs' 656 headquarter employees are members of minority groups.
But executives for Ralphs and several other firms said they do not know exactly how many of their workers actually live in Compton. And that touches another sore spot.