The day Moreno Valley City Council voted 3-2 to approve the mega-warehouse project World Logistics Center, I met with Perris City Councilwoman Tonya Burke. Moreno Valley had not yet made their decision, but both Ms. Burke and I are extremely familiar with the city’s politics and believed the votes in favor of the project were assured. Having attended the public hearing the evening before, I told her that the entire process appeared to be more theatrical spectacle than a serious debate on the project’s impact on the region.
The majority of our meeting was spent talking about an issue of mutual concern: the proliferation of distribution centers in the region, and the arrogance displayed by developers in engaging our elected officials to gain approval for their projects. In Moreno Valley, that relationship has been fodder for many news articles and the basis of a corruption probe. But Ms. Burke’s situation in Perris seemed to be much more indicative of the way the game is played out in city council chambers across the country, but especially in communities like ours, those most affected by the downturn in the economy…those communities with people desperate for jobs. And seemingly for any type of job, even those that don’t necessarily pay a living wage.
Ms. Burke has always been concerned about the number of distribution centers in her community. I recently drove through her neighborhood and was shocked to see the large concrete fortresses dominating the landscape near the entrance of her new housing tract. And while she is the first one to admit that these companies all have different hiring practices, pay scales, and opportunities for employee advancement, she has heard from many of her constituents that they are tired of watching their city approve project after project without considering the long term ramifications for the community. They’re also tired of seeing these companies come into the city with no intention of becoming real community partners.
This brewing issue in Perris first came to my attention through a series of posts on my Facebook newsfeed earlier this summer. I noticed a number of posts congratulating Ms. Burke and her colleague, Councilman David Starr Rabb on their decision not to support approving yet another distribution center whose developer wanted freeway positioning so close to the freeway that it would serve as a gateway to the city.
“This vote will probably kill my political career, but I’m fine with that. The people spoke loud and clear in November, they were tired of all these warehouses,” Mr. Rabb posted in regards to his no vote on the Optimus Warehouse proposed development on Ramona Expressway at the 215 Freeway. “Jobs are important but QUALITY jobs are even more important. The IE is not here for big companies to exploit our people,” one of Mr. Rabb’s constituents responded. “This is why you and Tonya Burke are our voices, you vote what the residents of Perris want. Thank you. No more empty warehouses,” another resident posted. Both Ms. Burke and Mr. Rabb were elected last year, unseating two longtime city councilmembers in a city that has seen both its number of residents and warehouses double in the last decade.
The challenges are obvious to Councilwoman Burke, but she fears the desperation some cities exhibit is causing them to make choices that are not in the best interest of the residents or the region. “We sell ourselves for cheap,” she told me. “For instance, I want to impose local hire requirements.” She researched other First Source Hiring Programs in cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Santa Monica and Richmond. Local hiring programs generally require developers and contractors who benefit from the use of public funds to target a percentage of the jobs toward local residents to ensure that those residents reap the economic development and reinvestment occurring in their community. Perris doesn’t currently have such a requirement, and the city boasts an unemployment rate that is twice the national average. And the developer didn’t want to commit to a hiring mandate, even at an only 10 percent local preference.
Ms. Burke’s approach is balanced. She wants to invite a variety of industries to consider doing business in the city of Perris but she also realizes that the city’s leaders must negotiate with the current companies slated to develop projects in the city…even if they are warehouses. So she listened to residents who want “partners” not just companies who exploit the city and its residents. She wanted to see a retail component added to the project, and a community center. The developer didn’t want to make too many commitments. But the city’s new leadership isn’t letting desperation fuel their decisions. They are not allowing developers to set the vision for the city. They are listening to their constituents and planning for a better future for the city and its residents.