In a state of the city speech sprinkled with jokes about local politics, Long Beach Mayor Beverly O'Neill announced Tuesday that the city has strongly recovered from the last economic recession, but still faces substantial challenges to redevelop its downtown waterfront.
"No other California community has been as battered by recession, has suffered through a major aerospace downsizing and been through as many military base closures as Long Beach has," O'Neill said in her seventh state of the city address. "And no California community has reinvented itself as quickly."
When O'Neill became mayor in 1994, one of the worst recessions in decades had devastated Long Beach, which is the state's fifth largest city, with a population of about 500,000.
Declines in defense spending, manufacturing and aerospace had gutted the local economy, reducing property values and eliminating more than 50,000 jobs. The city was especially hard hit by the closure of the Navy shipyard.
Since then, Long Beach has embarked on ambitious plans to attract international trade to its port, lure high-tech companies and remake its downtown waterfront into what leaders hope will be one of the state's premier tourist destinations. O'Neill, a former schoolteacher, has repeatedly called the strategy her "Three T's" for trade, technology and tourism.
Critics of the city's effort to remake itself say the record is mixed. While some successful shopping centers have been built, several important downtown projects, such as Queensway Bay and the new aquarium, face serious problems.
"Some may look at our revitalization efforts and see a cup that's half empty," O'Neill said. "But it's really half full, with the potential to fill it up even more in the future."
The mayor, who is planning to run as a write-in candidate for a third term, despite the city's term limits, spoke before 1,500 business and civic leaders at the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center. Her 30-minute address was hosted by the Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce.
O'Neill said there was good reason for optimism about the city's overall health. She noted that reported crimes have steadily declined, and that Long Beach has been repeatedly rated as one of California's most livable cities because of its affordable housing and coastal setting.
The mayor cited economic statistics showing that the local unemployment rate is now 4.5%, the lowest in a decade. Sales tax revenue from retail development has increased 25% over the last two years, while property values have increased as much as 17% and vacancy rates for commercial buildings have plummeted.
The mayor said she was particularly encouraged by rapid cargo growth at the Port of Long Beach
and the increasing number of technology companies that are opening facilities in the city. Among the developments is a Boeing Co. proposal to build a technology center on 230 acres that the aerospace giant owns near the Long Beach Airport.
Despite the advances, O'Neill said substantial challenges remain, particularly for downtown redevelopment and the effort to recapture its reputation as a tourist mecca.
A major housing proposal that would have redeveloped 10 blocks downtown recently died when the builder pulled out. In addition, two showcase projects now face considerable difficulties--the $140-million Aquarium of the Pacific and an adjacent $100-million retail and entertainment complex.
The annual attendance at the aquarium--now about a million--is half of what was projected. The city is on the brink of firing the developer of the entertainment center because of a lack of progress.
"Some developers have left us," said O'Neill. She then borrowed from Mae West, the famous Hollywood sex symbol and comedienne: "All discarded lovers should be given a second chance, but there is always somebody else."
In a jab at the city's politics, the mayor said City Council meetings have turned so impassioned on several issues that "a Valium salt lick might be needed in the conference room. . . . Sometimes we can tell it's a full moon without going outside."
In the future, the mayor said, the city must add parks and clean up its beaches and waterways, which are among the most polluted in the county. More immediately, she said, the city must reduce expenses to deal with a successful ballot initiative that will eventually reduce the city's utility tax revenue by about $30 million a year.
"If we treat Long Beach for what it can become, it will become that city, a city filled with hope, optimism and opportunity," O'Neill said. "After seven years, I can still say it's morning and I love you."