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Heeding Our Better Angels: Takeaways from the 2016 Leadership Exchange

It’s been a few weeks since we returned from Los Angeles after an eventful four days at the Greater Philadelphia Leadership Exchange. This year marked the eleventh iteration of the Exchange, an Economy League initiative that now claims more than 700 alumni who are leading organizations and institutions across the Greater Philadelphia region. With 132 business and civic leaders in attendance, the 2016 Exchange featured its largest and most diverse group to date.


A major part of each year’s GPLEX are the regional explorations, when we take members of our delegation out of the conference hotel and into the community to visit organizations and meet with local leaders doing exciting regional improvement work on the ground. While we are all still digesting much of what we saw and learned in Los Angeles, below are some key takeaways that stood out for Economy League staff from our L.A. explorations.



Cathy Lin, Project Manager


One of the most striking themes of this year’s GPLEX was the importance and success of coalition building in Los Angeles, particularly in the wake of the 1992 civil unrest. Our visits to Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC) and Community Coalition in South L.A. reinforced the value of cross-cultural coalitions that have driven positive neighborhood development and political change in the region.


Little Tokyo, an ethnically Japanese American historic district located in downtown L.A., has faced redevelopment pressures for the last half century, starting with the construction of the LAPD headquarters in the 1950s. While these challenges are not unique to L.A. (Philadelphia’s Chinatown has also faced development pressures from the Gallery, Convention Center, and proposed stadiums), Little Tokyo has been able to work closely with community partners to build diverse coalitions to preserve the heritage of the neighborhood and its small businesses. Having established lasting collaborations with partner organizations through its affordable housing expertise, LTSC was able to mobilize its partners to move a proposed at-grade rail line to an underground station that was less disruptive to the surrounding residential and commercial tenants. Following this success, LTSC was also part of an alliance that worked with residents to develop a community vision for future green redevelopment, culminating in the Sustainable Little Tokyo plan.


In South L.A., local labor leader Ada Briceño, city councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson, and Community Coalition president Alberto Retana discussed other successful community-based coalitions. Harris-Dawson highlighted L.A.’s progressive renaissance, noting the recent passage of a $15/hour minimum wage, dramatic improvements in high school graduation rates, and forward-thinking immigration policies. The panelists attributed these successes to L.A.’s strong labor movement and investments in community organizing to empower and strengthen leaders in diverse communities. For example, Community Coalition identified the challenge of limited access to college preparatory classes in South L.A., exemplified by the existence of more cosmetology than chemistry classes in low-income communities. Working with its student youth leaders, Community Coalition built alliances with families, community organizations, and business interests to adopt a district-wide college prep curriculum for the Los Angeles Unified School District.


In spite (or perhaps because) of L.A.’s history of civil and ethnic unrest, individual investments in community leaders, large-scale mobilizations, and sustained community organizing have been key to tackling the most intractable challenges of the region.



John Taylor, Project Manager


Los Angeles has a long history of being on the forefront of energy challenges and opportunities, as an early frontier in oil extraction, home to a hyper-engineered water infrastructure, and as the poster child of energy-intensive sprawl. This history has often led to problems for the region, but it has also shaped a place where people and institutions are constantly thinking about energy and green technology, presenting opportunities to develop innovative solutions across the spectrum of sustainability issues.


Our group met with River LA to learn about ambitious plans to revitalize the L.A. River, a 51-mile, concrete channel running through 17 cities and bounded on both sides by transportation infrastructure. A revitalized river could connect communities to open space, serve as an economic development engine, and reduce the region’s water import requirements by 14 percent. Some parallels can be drawn between this plan and local efforts to reconnect to the Delaware River waterfront, but efforts in L.A. are still in the very early stages. Yet for those of us who visited, it was clear that the scale of L.A.’s revitalization efforts will be exponentially larger than those in Philadelphia.


Following our visit to the river, we traveled to the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator (LACI), a nonprofit that is home to 48 cleantech startups working on a diversity of sustainability issues, including energy storage, biomass energy supply, workplace EV charging, e-waste recycling, green homebuilding, irrigation systems, and the development of a consumer-friendly solar energy marketplace, to name a few.


LACI pursues funding from various sources, but none have been as crucial as the City of Los Angeles and, specifically, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), which largely underwrites the incubator. LADWP – the nation’s largest municipal utility – is making significant headway on sustainability efforts to comply with California’s climate change legislation. While their other efforts – like reducing coal-powered plants and investing in solar power – make sense within the context of how we traditionally view a utility, this investment in LACI takes the department’s role to a different level. This is not simply a philanthropic endeavor, but rather a strategic venture to bolster LADWP’s own goals and help develop the energy solutions it will need in the future.


Although Philadelphia does not have a municipal electric utility, it does have a municipally owned gas utility. The partnership between LADWP and LACI is an interesting way to think about opportunities for such municipal entities to operate beyond traditional service provision. Identifying how government can leverage existing resources to support innovation should be a key lesson that we bring back to the Philadelphia region.



Jennifer Egmont, Director of Initiatives & Knowledge Management


Our group’s visit to East Los Angeles offered key lessons on how to improve individual lives and communities and reinforced the importance of sustained and iterative approaches to tackling complex, seemingly intractable challenges. Boyle Heights, a predominantly working-class, Latino immigrant neighborhood in East L.A., offers a helpful case study. The area was an epicenter of gang violence in the 1980s and 90s, but violent crime has since plummeted thanks in part to Homeboy Industries, our group’s first stop during our visit.


Established by Father Greg Boyle and members of the Dolores Mission Parish, Homeboy (which is now headquartered in the adjacent Chinatown neighborhood) provides formerly gang-involved men and women with education and support services and operates social enterprises (including a bakery and café) that serve as job-training sites. Homeboy Industries serves more than 10,000 people annually and has garnered international attention for its success in breaking the cycle of violence and recidivism, which we heard about first-hand from our tour guides, who gave powerful testimonies about the impact of Homeboy’s model.


Following our visit to Homeboy, Mike Dennis from East L.A. Community Corporation (ELACC) gave us a brief tour of some of the new transit-related developments in the Boyle Heights neighborhood. While gentrification is a challenge in many cities, L.A.’s notoriously high housing costs mean low-income and working-class neighborhoods face immense pressure. During the panel discussion following our tour, we heard about ELACC’s work engaging community members so they have a voice in new neighborhood development. We also heard from Rev. Troy Vaughn about improvements in re-entry efforts across California and from Dr. Beatriz Solis of the California Endowment about the foundation’s 10-year commitment to improving health in 14 communities in the state.


Although Greater Philadelphia doesn’t have L.A.’s same level of gang activity or quite as much gentrification pressure, we do have a staggering number of at-risk disconnected youth as well as challenges around ensuring inclusive growth and development. While the scale and nature of these issues require government resources and engagement, our visit to East L.A. demonstrated that non-governmental groups are best-positioned to make progress because they can look beyond election cycles and be more responsive and nimble.



Nick Frontino, Managing Director of Strategy & Operations


When it comes to moving goods and people, Los Angeles does things in a big way. Our group visited the Port of Los Angeles, which – together with the Port of Long Beach – is the largest port complex in the western hemisphere, handling approximately 40% of all cargo imported to the U.S. To support this level of activity, the L.A. metro and the adjacent Inland Empire region contain nearly 1.2 billion square feet of warehouse and distribution space – the equivalent of approximately 1,000 Comcast Centers. In terms of transporting people, Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) is the world’s busiest origin and destination facility – more passengers start or end their trips there than at any other airport in the world.


To meet the needs of such economically significant facilities and to position them for continued growth and competitiveness, Los Angeles leaders have advanced massive infrastructure investments in recent decades. As recently as the 1990s, inefficient inland connections between the ports and the transcontinental rail network compromised the speed of goods distribution in southern California. In 2002, a 20-mile-long rail cargo expressway called the Alameda Corridor opened, linking the ports to rail yards near downtown L.A. Through a series of bridges, underpasses, overpasses, and street improvements, the Corridor separates freight trains from street traffic and passenger trains, enabling a more efficient and less disruptive transportation network. Recent reports indicate that anything short of sustained strong growth in imports from Asia may place the Corridor on shaky financial footing. Nevertheless, it would be difficult to argue that the Corridor has not enhanced the efficiency and competitiveness of the port facilities.


At LAX, one of the largest construction projects in the city’s history promises to enhance mobility and access for the 75 million passengers who pass through the facility every year. Dubbed the Landside Access Modernization Program, or “LAMP,” this $5 billion investment will include construction of a new people mover, two intermodal transportation facilities, and a consolidated rental car facility.  Together these projects are anticipated to reduce vehicular traffic in the Central Terminal Area by 40 percent. These improvements are a welcome addition for a facility that has not seen significant capital investment in passenger facilities since the years leading up to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Improvements made through the LAMP program will also dovetail with the extension of LA Metro’s Exposition transit line to LAX, which is currently under construction thanks to dedicated funding approved by L.A. County voters in 2008. For those who believe that the coming years will bring even more passengers to LAX, the LAMP project cannot happen soon enough.


While the scale of goods and passenger movement in Greater Los Angeles may be on a different level than in Greater Philadelphia, regional leaders and the general population in southern California have clearly grasped the importance of significant capital investments to maintaining the competitiveness of their assets and positioning these facilities for continued growth. This can-do attitude was on display throughout our GPLEX visit, and appears to be a driving force behind the region’s ongoing transformation.



Cathy Lin, Project Manager


At Culver Studios and Sony Pictures Studios, GPLEX participants had a behind-the-scenes look at the legacy of the entertainment industry and learned how Los Angeles is shoring up its creative economy strengths in the face of intensified competition domestically and internationally. One of the key players in L.A.’s entertainment ecosystem is Film L.A., a not-for-profit organization that serves 21 municipalities and school districts, including the city and county of Los Angeles.


The evolution of filming in L.A. offers clear lessons on the need to adapt to ever-changing market demands. Film L.A. President Paul Audley described how industry players assumed that the film industry would never leave Hollywood, but as more places began offering tax credits (reaching up to 30% of all production costs), film production became increasingly mobile. Audley noted that, today, the finance team – not the creatives – makes the final decision on where to locate film and television production.


The state of Louisiana was an early adopter of film tax credit incentives – starting in 2002 – and by 2013 had the highest number of feature films of any other state or nation. By contrast, California only instituted a film and television tax credit in 2009 in an effort to stem this tide of “runaway production.” Although independent analyses have shown that only California and New York – given their concentration of existing entertainment infrastructure and more modest tax credit levels – have seen an ROI from these incentives, other locations continue to offer generous tax credits and work to strengthen their employment base in the film industry. There are no guarantees that even the most stalwart and iconic of industries will last forever without change.



John Taylor, Project Manager


A standout session during our visit to Silicon Beach – an emerging tech hub along L.A.’s west side – was a discussion with Rick Cole, Santa Monica’s city manager and a longtime leader in local government innovation. Cole articulated his vision for the role of municipal government in the 21st century, namely, that it should pivot from being a provider of services to a promoter of outcomes.


One example of this vision in action has been the development of the city’s unparalleled fiber network system, called CityNet. Nearly two decades ago, the city had the foresight to begin laying fiber cable as other underground utilities had to be upgraded – a policy called “dig once.” Santa Monica has continued to make sustained investments in the system and, today, has one of the best fiber networks in the country. As other cities compete to attract Google’s gigabit internet service, Santa Monica’s publicly owned CityNet now delivers 100-gigabit broadband fiber access to 150 corporate and tech businesses.


While at its core CityNet is a service for Santa Monica businesses and residents, the city does not frame it in that way. A visit to CityNet’s website – which looks like that of a cutting-edge tech company – leads with the following tagline: “Promoting economic development and livability with globally competitive broadband.” That’s a unique frame, and one that clearly conveys why the city is making these investments. As the city announced its upgrade to 100-gigabit service, it promoted resident-focused opportunities including free WiFi in parks, buses, libraries, and schools while also highlighting opportunities for local tech, healthcare, and entertainment firms – where greater speed can mean the ability to tackle bigger challenges.


Returning to Philadelphia, our takeaway is not that local government needs to own or manage internet infrastructure. Instead, we should ask how local governments in our region can increasingly focus on outcomes and not simply service provision. And, as illustrated by these efforts in Santa Monica, how can our governments best leverage existing resources, assets, and mandates to spur cutting-edge innovation in the 21st century?