YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The Region

Irvine Makes Push to Lure Black Firms

Diversity: City's hosting of a two-day summit is part of a commitment to boost multiculturalism.


In a push to broaden Irvine's diversity, the city is hosting a two-day conference that officials hope will motivate black-owned businesses to move to a town in which African Americans make up less than 2% of the population.

About 500 entrepreneurs from across the state are expected to attend the African American Business Summit, which begins today at the Hyatt Regency Irvine and is aimed at helping small-business owners become more profitable. Twice in its five-year existence the summit has been held in Irvine, which city leaders are hoping to shape into a model of multiculturalism for the suburbs.

"They're doing a lot of things right," said Thomas Parham, a consultant who advises public and private institutions on cultural diversity.

The summit will include speeches by former Atlanta Mayor Maynard H. Jackson and workshops focusing on such matters as alternative financing, online marketing and corporate diversity. Groups such as Parham's 100 Black Men of Orange County, which promotes education and economic development in the black community, are helping sponsor the event.

"Irvine hasn't been widely known among African Americans," said Patricia Means, a summit founder. "But this is like laying out a welcome mat. People are going to be far more willing to approach the city."

By some measures, Irvine's diversity is surprising to those who cling to memories of the county as a mostly white community.

About 45% of Irvine's 148,000 residents are non-white, a figure that doesn't include about 15,000 residents of Middle Eastern descent. According to city statistics, about 44,000 residents are Asian and Pacific Islanders, and 11,000 are Latino. But only about 2,600 are black, less than 2% of the town's population--a statistic that mirrors the county's, and one the city would like to double.

Orange County has been slow to attract African Americans and black-owned business, a fact some blame on its lingering reputation for right-wing politics and a history tainted by racism. Others say it's the high cost of housing that has made the county uninviting. In Irvine, the median home price is $356,000--almost $100,000 more than the median home price for all of Southern California.

That's going to make striking a cultural balance very difficult, said Jennifer Wolch, co-director of the Sustainable Cities Program at USC.

"The housing market almost precludes it, unless the city is dedicated to providing an adequate share of affordable housing--not just for low-income families, but for very low-income," Wolch said.

Officials from the city and the Irvine Co. have vowed to formulate a plan to provide 1,800 homes for low- and very low-income families within Irvine's next--and probably final--development push. And, Wolch said, the city's effort to attract minority businesses will add to its chances for success in reaching its goal of becoming an American model of diversity.

"Attracting African American businesses and families to Irvine is, for me, a priority," Irvine Mayor Larry Agran said. "As America's largest and most successful planned community, we have to be concerned about much more than physical infrastructure--the beautiful streets, parks, landscaping. We have to be concerned about social structure as well."

Besides the summit, the city this year held a daylong festival celebrating the community's diversity and staged a display honoring African American inventors during Black History Month. Three years ago it formed a group to organize cultural celebrations throughout the year, and the Police Department has assigned one officer the sole task of recruiting minorities. Civic workshops are conducted to help employees understand the beliefs and customs of other cultures.

"There is no Little Saigon here, no Koreatown, no barrio," Agran said. "We are all living in this community together. And that's a refreshing and upbeat message that I'd like to get out to the whole world."

Los Angeles Times Articles