Good news for North Richmond’s jobless

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The "Death Wall," a graffiti-covered wall outside a small grocery store on Fifth and Market streets in North Richmond memorializes homicide victims in the poverty-stricken community. City and county staffs hope that by encouraging business investment in the area, they can help to reduce joblessness and the crime associated with low income levels. File photo by Robert Rogers.

The median household income in unincorporated North Richmond is $8,763, less than half the federal poverty level for a family of four. In Richmond proper—itself considered an economically disadvantaged town—it’s a little more than $50,000.

 It’s this stark divide that reminds you that however economically bad things are in Richmond, where 17.5 percent of the city’s residents are unemployed, things just to the north are even worse.

 But amidst the poverty and joblessness that mark life in North Richmond for so many, there does appear to be a faint bit of economic hope on the horizon. Redevelopment agencies at both the city and county level have begun discussing the possibility of including North Richmond as part of the city’s “Enterprise Zone,” a state-drawn boundary that affords businesses a number of tax credits for operating and hiring within the distressed area.

 Businesses inside the zone—which currently includes about 90 percent of Richmond—can submit vouchers that turn into state tax credits for hiring employees from the city’s poorest neighborhoods, or for making facility upgrades to buildings inside the zone. The hope is that by giving companies incentives to do business in distressed areas, the state program can help boost local employment and entrepreneurship.

 Thomas Mills, the head of Richmond’s Economic Development Department, estimated that between 100 and 150 businesses inside Richmond’s Enterprise Zone have submitted vouchers for the rebates since the program began more than 15 years ago—the majority of which are larger retail stores, including several that operate inside the Hilltop Mall.

 Extending tax benefits to businesses in North Richmond would encourage companies already there to hire locally, which could take a dent out of the area’s unemployment rate, said Richmond Chamber of Commerce President Judy Morgan. But perhaps more beneficially, she said, it could encourage new businesses to move in and set up shop, creating more jobs.

 “It’s another tool to attract businesses,” Morgan said. “There’s a lot of land in North Richmond. It’s not just a little housing area. All the way out there to Parr Boulevard and the Richmond Parkway—there’s a lot of opportunity there.”

 Once city and county staffs finalize a study demonstrating that North Richmond is sufficiently economically distressed to be included in Richmond’s zone, both the Richmond City Council and County Board of Supervisors would have to sign off on the plan before an application can be sent to the state’s Housing and Community Development department, which manages the Enterprise Zone program. According to Mills, though, the plan should be an easy sell.

 “I wouldn’t, at this point, anticipate [the County Board of Supervisors or Richmond City Council] would go against a sensible plan like this,” he said.

 The city and county would have to come to an agreement on which jurisdiction would process paperwork like business licenses and other permits inside the widened Enterprise Zone. But the sides do have a recent template to work from: Two years ago, the unincorporated area of Bay Point was co-opted into Pittsburg’s Enterprise Zone—the only other such zone in Contra Costa County—giving Richmond leaders something of a blueprint for how to proceed with the North Richmond expansion.

 According to city staff, there aren’t any plans right now to involve other nearby economically distressed areas, like Bayview-Montalvin, home to a 20.4 percent unemployment rate, Rollingwood (23.6 percent unemployment) or San Pablo (21.4 percent) in the zone. 

 Rosemary Viramontes, who works in the city’s “RichmondWORKS” job-training program, said she expects the city to apply for an extension to its boundary by the end of the year, although the state could take as long as a year to process and approve the application. Viramontes said that after more than a year of job losses in Richmond, her department is just now beginning to see an increase in the number of vouchers being turned in—a sign, she said, of new hiring. “It leads us to believe things are starting to turn around,” she said.

 By getting businesses in North Richmond plugged into the tax credit program, the county redevelopment agency is hoping to capitalize on that job growth, however slight it may still be.

 Long a home industrial manufacturing operations, North Richmond now has only a few large employers. Laidlaw Transit, the school-bus manufacturer, and furniture company Palecek, Inc. both have operations on Parr Boulevard, and both have more than 100 employees, according to the Chamber of Commerce. But outside of that, there aren’t many big companies looking for employees.

 North Richmond, which boasts the unenviable title of having the county’s lowest median income (and indeed one of the lowest in the state), has in recent years been a target for county-supported revitalization efforts. A general plan for North Richmond, which is still being finalized by the county’s redevelopment agency, calls for rezoning much of the area between San Pablo and Wildcat creeks for mixed residential and commercial use, and building a number of new housing and storefront units there. The two most recent housing developments in North Richmond, the Parkway Estates and Bella Flora homes, while advertised as low-income housing, have at least begun to attract a little more money into the area, according to County Supervisor John Gioia.

 “Really, the issues [facing] North Richmond are exactly the same as in parts of the city, and in the Iron Triangle,” Gioia said. “It’s one of these things where jurisdictional boundaries have gotten in the way of what makes the most sense.”

 While the plan can’t be seen as a cure-all for the problems of poverty and crime in North Richmond, Gioia said, it is at least a cause for hope. “We’re optimistic about this,” he said.

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