Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster
As the fifth-largest city in California, with the second-largest port in the country, Long Beach is on the front line of the current economic crisis. Imports at the Port have decreased, and unemployment is rising. We sent reporter Tina Mather to talk with Long Beach mayor Bob Foster. (photo by Alaena Hostetter)
How has the decline on Wall Street, and the current economic downturn, most affected Long Beach?
We're getting hit like everyone else. We do have a higher unemployment rate than the rest of the state. We've got a great economic asset with the Port, but the Port is feeling the reduction in imports as well. They were down 10 percent for the year last year; they'll probably be down again this year. That's just less commercial activity.
So we're going to have to manage our way through this. It's not going to be easy. We're feeling the effects and will feel the effects. And that reverberates through the budget of the city with all the services you can provide. Fortunately we're a city with a pretty low debt and we're a city that can manage our way through.
What do you think of the current stimulus package proposal? Will it be effective? What kinds of projects should be funded?
To be blunt, we're at very extraordinary times and I don't think you use business-as-usual techniques when you're in that. So adding Frisbee golf courses and other kinds of extraneous spending proposals is inappropriate. I think people are upset with that and maybe rightly so.
My preference is that the majority of it goes into infrastructure projects because those build wealth and build a capability for building wealth for the long-term. Those are vitally needed. We have not invested in infrastructure in this county to anywhere near the degree we need to for decades.
What we get [as a city] will be put to good use. Our first priority will be our water quality projects and our streets. Water quality projects would be some of the pumping stations along the river that can divert bacterial flows into the sanitary sewer system. Also take out bacteria and debris in our storm drains. We're ready to go with those projects and that will stimulate the economy.
Do you think infrastructure improvements are the key to improving local economy?
If you don't have a solid foundation on infrastructure, it's very difficult - even if you had manufacturing - to create things effectively. If you can't move goods, move people, keep your water clean, if you can't improve your public safety response capability and security - all of which is dependent on a solid infrastructure - then you're not going to build as vibrant and sustainable an economy as you want.
You have a history of working on green initiatives, and the Port is a notorious polluter. Will the economy slow cleanup initiatives?
If you took the Port as a stationary source, it would be the largest source of air pollution in Southern California. In and around the Port, you've got twice the statewide average of asthma cases, you've got increased heart disease, truncated lung development in kids, increased heart disease. That's all a real cost. Somebody's paying those costs.
When you decide what you're going to build at the port, [you've got to take that into account]. It's called externalities. You need to include those into your equation. When you do that, you're talking about a health impact that's billions of dollars a year when you add the lost days of work and school. People have done studies on this. It's a substantial annual impact.
When you clean up that Port, it's cost effective. If you can reduce the health impacts, then in addition to the great things you do for people's health you have saved money. I don't see this city backing away from it and I don't see anybody else doing that.
The other thing with the Port is its vulnerability to a terrorist attack. What preventive measures are in place?
After 9/11, the biggest thing that's happened now is that all the agencies are coordinating together. You have federal, state and local agencies and homeland security working together. There have been a number of things to improve security out there - cameras, submersible cameras, every box is up for detection with radioactive detectors. There's now a program requiring transportation worker identity cards for everyone coming in and out of the Port. There's a lot more security around the port. We have a new central administration building for fire, police, and homeland security. Those are all improvements.
There's a lot more that still needs to be done. But the Port is always going to be a target. Whenever you have free commerce, the Port is always going to be vulnerable to some sort of attack. What you have to do in a small perimeter like this is move that perimeter out. The more we can do on surveillance, the more we can do on detection and knowing what cargo movements are - and all that's underway - the better off we are. It's a lot safer than it was on 9/11, and it still needs to be safer. The good thing is that agencies are talking to one another and a lot's being done to move that perimeter out so you can track movements. Ultimately, the goal is to know that box is secure from the time it leaves its port of origin to the time it gets here.
In your most recent State of the City address, you mentioned the "Greatest Generation," those people who were raised during the Great Depression. You said the same factors we're going through right now produced the kind of character members of the Greatest Generation now have. What do you think it would take for our generation to leave a similar legacy?
Well, hopefully you don't have to go through a great depression or world war. But I have a real affinity for my parents' generation. They had a real, selfless devotion to making things better. I think a lot of that came from their experiences during the Depression and the sacrifices they made during World War II.
What I was really trying to illustrate to people is the character traits that generation displays - they were savers rather than consumers, investors rather than spenders, they thought long-term. They didn't just think about the next week, month, or year, but they really did think in 20 or 30-year increments.
So we're going to have to go back to those character traits to be successful here. That's not going to be easy or without pain. But we really have to understand that this is larger than any one of us. We're all working to build a better structure and future for those who come after us - at least, that ought to be our goal.