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Media Industry Gives Burbank the Last Laugh : Growth: Booming entertainment business is helping revive a beleaguered economy, offset aerospace losses.


BURBANK — Few cities have been as ridiculed, but these days Burbank can afford to laugh.

The butt of jokes dating back to the '60s comedy show "Laugh-In" and perpetuated by Johnny Carson, Burbank was until recently a fitting target. It was hot, smoggy and, in some areas, downright ugly. Adding injury to insult, Burbank lost nearly 14,000 jobs after its biggest employer, Lockheed Corp., packed up and moved in 1990.

But instead of being a poster child for aerospace downsizing, Burbank now stands as a glowing example of a trend that economists and local politicians are increasingly trumpeting: More than any other industry, the fast-growing media and entertainment business is helping to revive the long-beleaguered Southern California economy, and to offset the pain felt throughout the region due to aerospace industry shrinkage.

That growth is apparent throughout Burbank's Media District. The city's two movie studios, Walt Disney and Warner Bros., have ruled the box office for the past five years. They are bustling with production activity, thanks to the explosion in demand from overseas markets, cable TV and broadcast networks and new programming avenues such as computer games.

Facilities at NBC Studios in Burbank are also full to the brim. Scores of other enterprises--from sound companies to post-production firms to studio equipment suppliers--are bursting with work. More keep popping up all the time, quickly filling buildings vacated by ball bearing manufacturers and other former Lockheed suppliers.

There's no end to the growth in sight. Disney and Warner Bros.--along with neighbor MCA, whose Universal Studios is just across the Los Angeles River from Burbank--have embarked on long-term expansion plans. And pending mergers promise to solidify their positions as the world's dominant media concerns.

"There's still a strong sentiment that somehow Los Angeles is weaker than it was 10 years ago because of a loss of manufacturing, and particularly that the Valley is hurting because of the loss of aerospace," said Gary Anderson, a principal consultant at SRI International, a Menlo Park-based research group.

"That's true," Anderson said, "but it's being replaced by an equally high-tech industry. Its product is up on the screen."

To be sure, the startling growth of the media business can never fully compensate for agonizing aerospace cutbacks. Many of those who once helped design stealth fighters remain jobless, stuck in low-paid positions or have relocated elsewhere. For them, a transition to entertainment-related jobs isn't always easy.

Nonetheless, Burbank, which is increasingly regarded as the unqualified--if unlikely--media capital of the world, has undergone a remarkable rejuvenation.

The city boasts the tightest office market in Southern California, a relatively low unemployment rate and growing tax revenues. The entertainment jobs being created are high-paying--industry salaries average about $45,000 a year--and the amount of money spent in Burbank has been growing at a 10% annual clip. Moreover, the spotlight on Burbank is helping brighten the economies of other communities nearby, such as Glendale and Studio City, where the studios have also channeled some of their growth. This, at a time when many municipalities are grappling with budget crises, depressed real estate values and high jobless rates.

Burbank City Manager Robert (Bud) Ovrom credited Burbank's resurgence to a combination of luck and an aggressive, business-friendly municipal staff. Unlike Los Angeles, for example, Burbank has no gross receipts tax. And five years ago, with Lockheed's departure imminent, the city had the foresight to develop a master plan to guide media industry growth.

So when Disney and Warner Bros. submitted their long-term expansion plans to the city, approvals took less than a year. By comparison, 20th Century-Fox Film Corp.'s growth plan took three years to win passage in Los Angeles.

Disney, whose work force in the Burbank-Glendale area has already grown 25% in the last four years to about 8,000, is continuing to gear up at its 44-acre Burbank lot under the 25-year plan passed in 1992. At the time, Disney projected spending $600 million to add 1.9 million square feet of facilities.

Among the first projects Disney undertook was a gleaming new building to house about 700 animators. The building was completed a year ago, and already "it's overflowing," said Peter Rummell, president of Disney design and development.

Disney has another office building under construction, and plans to begin work soon on two new sound stages and accompanying offices. Plus, Rummell estimates, Disney occupies space in about 25 buildings off the main lot in Burbank and nearby Glendale.

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