City’s economic future takes center stage at summit

At Tuesday's economic summit, speakers emphasized the importance of attracting news businesses to town. Photo by Maggie Beidelman.

At Tuesday's economic summit, speakers emphasized the importance of attracting news businesses to town. Photo by Maggie Beidelman.

Business owners, entrepreneurs and city leaders crowded the floor of the Civic Center Memorial Auditorium Tuesday morning to swap business cards, study up on market trends and discuss Richmond’s economic future–one that’s looking bright, if you ask organizers of the city’s second annual economic summit.

The event, presented by the Richmond Chamber of Commerce, featured a half-day series of workshops, mostly tailored for small- and medium-sized businesses, ranging in topics from company branding to business loans. But the summit’s overarching theme was as much about the potential for new Richmond businesses as it was about those whose owners showed up.

“Everyone feels like were on the cusp of an opportunity, and we need to be ready,” said Jan Brown, Board President of the Richmond Art Center and a presenter at Tuesday’s summit.

“We have companies relocating to Richmond from places like South San Francisco and Marin County,” said Bill Lindsay, Richmond’s city manager. “Richmond is now a city of choice.”

The day’s first speaker, economist Dr. Christopher Thornberg, said one key to Richmond’s success was to continue making the city a “destination place” for new businesses, as well as attracting new young talent.

“How do you make this place a little hip?” he said. “How do you make people want to be here?”

Perhaps no session better captured Richmond’s desire for reinvention than two sessions focused on the new Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory campus. Richmond is one of six East Bay cities in competition for the new campus, which could bring thousands of new jobs and millions of dollars in public and private development to its new hometown.

The UC Board of Regents won’t make a final decision until November. But should the UC select Richmond’s Field Station for its new campus, the benefits could have ripple effects throughout the city, spurring new businesses around the site and elevating the city’s reputation in the Bay Area.

“People will notice Richmond,” said Seth Chandler, president of Stella Capital in San Francisco. “It will have all the extra bells and whistles,”

Chandler and his business partners are betting on the city’s continued growth. They’ve purchased three buildings, and are in the process of negotiating leases with new tenants.

“I believe in Richmond, and I eat my cooking, too,” he said.

But while all this talk of Richmond’s future growth had some participants feeling excited, it had others feeling restless.

In a comment directed to UC Berkeley representatives presenting the new site proposal, Naomi Williams asked, “Why are you wasting your time? We all know this is a great site. A wise man said, ‘If you build it they will come.”

Williams is President of the Pullman Neighborhood Council, which represents the community living near the proposed campus site. “We have a lot of unemployment in our area, and we could sure use those jobs,” she said.

Job opportunities were at the top of the priority list for students Nikko Higgins and Jaron Leaks, who came to the summit with their classmates from DeAnza High School’s Information Technology and Communications Academy.

“I head that there would be job opportunities, so I wanted to get in here for any possibility,” Higgins said.

“Me, too,” Leaks said. “I tried applying at McDonald’s, but it was weird because I was competing for a job with 40-year-olds.”

All the positive news about Richmond’s economic potential couldn’t entirely overshadow some of its realities. The city’s unemployment rate is still hovering over 17 percent. While a few major retailers like Costco and Target are doing well, the city is still having a hard time attracting vital retailers like grocery stores.

“We have 106,000 people and two grocery stores,” said Janet Johnson, a senior business assistance officer from the Office of Economic Development. “It’s the biggest food desert I’ve ever seen.”

Christine Firstenberg, a local retail broker who ran a session on retail trends, said while some major retailers, including grocery stores, are interested in coming to Richmond, the companies can’t always find buildings with the right floor space, parking and visibility in the city.

“If I can leave you with nothing else today, it’s understanding how picky these retailers are,” she told summit attendants.

Then she added one more piece of well-received advice: “The single most important thing you can do for this city is to spend your money here.”

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