The relationship between the Chevron refinery and the city of Richmond is often described as adversarial. But in the midst of all of the tension, the company says it is committed to its long-standing philanthropic relationship with Richmond.
Dozens of Richmond residents and city workers gathered in Green Space Park Tuesday to celebrate Chevron’s launch of its major revitalization initiative.
Chevron, which has operated its refinery in Richmond for more than 100 years, is investing $15.5 million in local economic development and education programs over the next five years. The initiative marks the corporation’s largest investment ever in a single city, said Chevron spokeswoman Melissa Ritchie.
The West Contra Costa School District will receive $5.5 million for programs that focus on science, technology and math in middle and high schools. Local economic development and employment programs will receive $10 million.
“Today is the first day of a wonderful beginning for us,” said Andrea Bailey, Community Engagement Manager at the Richmond refinery. “This is an opportunity for us to all come together.”
Last year’s refinery fire caused great public outcry against the oil company. Also, for several years, Chevron was suing the city and county over how much it owes in property taxes. Chevron recently resolved its eight years of pending tax litigation with the city and county.
The city of Richmond is working on an environmental impact report on the refinery’s revised modernization project proposal, to which the city expected to give final approval next year.
In the midst of a complicated relationship, the revitalization initiative marks a collaborative effort between community members and the company. The project has been in the works for two years and has involved gathering input from many key community stakeholders, Bailey said.
“The great thing is it’s not just Chevron sitting around the table planning this,” Ritchie added. The initiative steering committee included Dr. Henry Clark, director of the West County Toxics Coalition, Sal Vaca, director of RichmondWorks, and the leaders of the WCCUSD.
“We don’t always agree with Chevron, but I’m in total agreement on this,” Clark said. It’s a step towards fostering better relations with the company, which can also lead to improved environmental standards, he said. This initiative was created long before the fire occurred, Clark added.
“I didn’t know what to expect as a longtime [Richmond] resident, but this is good,” said Cheryl Vaughn, co-director of Solar Richmond. She acknowledged the rocky relationship between the company and the city, but said that conflict can be productive. “Where there’s tension, results happen,” she said.
While most people at the gathering were positive about the initiative, some were more skeptical about the program’s true impact. Three million dollars a year is a small amount compared to the company’s billion-dollar profits, said Eduardo Martinez, of the Richmond Progressive Alliance. “They’ve contested their taxes year after year,” Martinez said. “They give $3 million on one hand, and ask for $25 to $110 million on the other.”
Martinez said investing in the local workforce and school system was a positive thing, but he questioned the company’s timing. The company should be investing in Richmond every year, he added. “It begs the question, why now?”
For Sal Vaca, director of the city’s RichmondWorks program, the revitalization initiative couldn’t come at a better time. “This is particularly timely when state and federal funding has dried up,” he said. Vaca stressed the importance of investing in narrowing the “significant skills gap” in Richmond.
There is a lack of workers with skills for emerging industries, Vaca said. Job skills training is in high demand in Richmond. RichmondBUILD Academy, which provides training for high-wage construction and renewable energy industries, has to turn away more than half of all candidates, Vaca said.
“We don’t always see eye-to-eye, but on issues like this, we know we can come together,” said Kory Judd, general manager of the Richmond refinery. “Being able to invest in local businesses is key. Schools are [also] fundamental.”
The company must be an active participant in Richmond in order to continue as a viable business in the region, Judd said. “We would like to be a business here for a long time,” Judd said. He added that cities hardly ever receive $15.5 million. “To happen here in Richmond I think is a tremendous vote of confidence.”
The next phase of the revitalization initiative will be to create a task force, Bailey said. The group will then decide which specific programs to invest in, she said.