By Grace Lee, (CMC class of 2017).
In 2008, Public Policy Institute of California published a report titled “Inland Empire in 2015,” projecting the demographic and economic composition of Riverside and San Bernardino counties. It anticipated potential problems in employment, educational attainment, and civic participation. The report projected that educational levels in the Inland Empire will increase only slightly, from 19% of adults who have bachelor’s degrees in 2005 to 21% in 2015, predicting that the region will remain far less educated than the rest of the state. The report anticipated that the Inland Empire will have a shortage of jobs for low-skilled workers, the supply of adults without a high school diploma exceeding employer demand. The report also predicted that population growth that will not be met with enough job gains, leaving more workers to commute out of the region. In 2005, 20% of residents commuted to work out of the Inland Empire, and it expected this percentage to only increase.
Riverside, the most populous city in the Inland Empire, has defied those expectations and shown great economic growth in the last five years. It was ranked eighth in Top 10 U.S. Cities for Job Growth in 2012 by CBS News and sixth in Top 10 U.S. Cities for Job Growth in 2014 by Forbes. Riverside’s job growth rose by 2.8% in the first three quarters of 2014. This economic success can be traced to various factors such as community revitalization through renovations, an increase of blue-collar jobs, and an active local government that launched a series of initiatives to improve the city.
In 2009, Riverside’s then Mayor Ron Loveridge gathered civic and community leaders to develop a 20-year strategic vision. The city council approved the plan entitled “Seizing Our Destiny: The Agenda for Riverside’s Innovative Future” in May 2009. The strategic vision was developed with input from more than 500 participants and led by David W. Stewart, PhD, the dean of the University of California, Riverside School of Business and Scott C. Barber, Riverside City Manager. It involved focus groups, vision labs, public forums, a steering committee, and civic leaders from the community. The plan is a 52-page document that introduces strategies on topics such as growing the economy, developing the workforce, and improving education. It also set plans for community revitalization through building renovation and space usage.
Economic development was the first topic in the 20-year strategic plan. One initiative was to actively recruit companies within five desirable industries identified by the city, Chamber of Commerce and other civic leaders: medical/ health care, professional services, financial/ insurance/ legal, green technology and manufacturing, and innovative high-tech. The strategy contains plans to help and support entrepreneurs by extending University Research Park, an area created in partnership among the city, Riverside County, and UC Riverside that is already home to several technology companies. It also set goals to launch an incubator program and a Center for Entrepreneurship to help small businesses grow. Riverside was conscious in its efforts to attract businesses, so it prioritized streamlining government procedures, processes, and forms and developed funding mechanisms for increased investment in businesses. Lastly, the city set priorities to create attractive and price-competitive buildings for businesses.
The economic development initiatives resulted in tangible growth, especially in the tech industry. Forbes ranked Riverside second in America’s New Tech Hot Spots in the U.S. in 2013. It had an 18.6% growth in STEM employment from 2001-2012. The initiatives to make Riverside a more attractive location for small businesses and entrepreneurs have also been successful, resulting in the rating of #1 U.S. City for Small Business in 2014 by Inc. Magazine.
Riverside also set goals in its 20-year plan to improve both K-12 public education and higher education. To address improvement in K-12 education, the city introduced plans to increase the college-going rate through the use of tutoring and mentoring programs. Riverside is home to several higher education institutions, including Riverside City Community College, University of California, Riverside, and two private universities. Riverside received $3 million dollars from Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2010 for Riverside City Community College to increase associate degree completion rates from 14% in 2010. The buildings of the new UC Riverside School of Medicine were recently completed, and the school enrolled its first class in 2013. It is one of only six medical schools in California and the state’s first new public medical school in forty years. Officials expect the medical school will create both blue-collar and white-collar jobs and continue to attract more professionals to Riverside.
The 20-year vision plan also focused on community revitalization. Initiatives included establishing five highly walkable destinations and providing opportunities in arts and culture for young people between the ages of 16 to 35. Downtown Riverside is already a bustling place for retail shopping, dining, and entertainment, but places such as the Marketplace and University Village are also being transformed to create spaces for people to enjoy a “big city recreation with a hometown feel.” Another initiative from the plan was to host a major signature event each season to highlight the city’s unique culture and community. Lastly, Riverside has recently completed multiple renovations as a part of the 20-year plan, including an expansion and renovation of the Riverside Convention Center, a multi-million dollar building of over 66,000 square feet of space that reopened in March 2014. The Convention Center has helped bring business to the city through hosting various events and conferences that attract many attendees.
Riverside is also home to many historic buildings, including the Mission Inn and the Riverside Art Museum. The Mission Inn is considered the largest mission revival style building in the U.S. and was named as a National Historic Landmark and as a California Historic Landmark. It was originally completed in 1932 and restored from 1985 to 1992, and attracts large numbers of tourists to Riverside. The Riverside Art Museum was built in 1929 and renovated in 1992. It is placed on the National Register of Historic Places and was designated as a city historic landmark. Lastly, the Fox Theater, built in 1929, completed a $35 million dollar renovation in 2009. It was part of a larger program called the “Riverside Renaissance.”
The Riverside Renaissance program was started by the City in 2006 for projects to improve the community. The City Council voted to spend $1.6 billion to do 30 years’ worth of public improvements in just five. The projects have included improving parks, public safety, arts and culture, transportation, public works and utilities, and city facilities. The Renaissance has increased spending for parks and sports facilities that provide new recreation and social service opportunities to residents.
The construction, renovation, and expansion of these buildings and others created many blue-collar jobs. Other major projects included the Riverside Municipal Auditorium that reopened in 2012 and a new fire station. The Riverside Municipal Auditorium alone created about 220 jobs over one year, and the new fire station created about 250 construction jobs over seven months. Although the economic growth that the City has experienced in recent years is, in large part, due to the growth of blue-collar jobs, creating a city that is an attractive place overall to live and to work is a good investment for sustaining future growth.
These investments have certainly paid off. Riverside was rated eighth America’s Coolest Cities in 2014 by Forbes. The ranking gave each city an index for arts and culture, recreation, diversity, local eats, population age 20-34, and 2010-2013 net migration. Riverside is also increasingly attracting more young professionals through the growth of businesses and opportunities for high-paying jobs, as well as the growth of entertainment and culture in the city. As a result, Forbes rated Riverside the sixth Happiest Place in the Nation for Young Professionals in 2013. It was based on the results of an analysis of young professionals with less than 10 years of work experience, evaluating ten factors that influenced workplace happiness, including work environment and job resources.
Riverside has also been using technology and innovation to address problems in its communities. SmartRiverside is a community-based nonprofit that helps low-income families and youth in Riverside through technology. It was launched in 2005 by civic leaders to help low-income and disadvantaged residents overcome the “digital divide.” The program hires and trains at-risk youth, such as high school dropouts and gang members, as staff members and interns to refurbish computers. The computers are then given to qualified residents who make an annual family income of less than $45,000. Along with software and modems that connect them to the city’s free Wi-Fi network, residents also receive a free eight-hour computer training class in English or Spanish. The program has provided computers to 7,000 families who did not have them before. It has also helped engage youth who were likely to become disconnected community members . Many youth who worked as interns or were hired as staff get support to earn degrees and begin careers in the IT services field.
Riverside has also used technology to improve the functionality of its local government and services to its residents. In 2005, the city partnered with Xerox to revamp its technology to better serve its residents. The city’s website is now interactive and easy to navigate, with video and graphics. The city created one center that residents can access to put in any requests, whether via phone or online. It also used technological tools to increase input from the public for the Seizing Our Destiny 20-Year Strategic Plan. It allowed residents to share ideas through websites and documented the plan’s progress to share with the public. The city also has created an Office of Economic Development website that contains resources for Riverside businesses. It highlights incentives and benefits for starting a business in the city and makes available resources for small businesses and entrepreneurs.
The creation of higher-paying, blue-collar jobs in Riverside gives it the lowest income disparities based on race out of the country’s 15 largest metro areas. According to an analysis by Mark Schillof the Praxis Strategy Group, the average income for African-Americans in Riverside is about 81% of the white average. This is significantly higher than the ratio for San Francisco (49%) and Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia, all 50-51%. There is a similar pattern for Latinos. Hispanic incomes in Riverside are 84% of whites, again the best in the country’s largest metropolitan areas. Miami is a close second with 81% and both are significantly better than the 50-54% found in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York. Through job opportunities in construction, manufacturing, and logistics, many blue-collar workers have jobs that pay relatively well compared to other low-skilled jobs. Especially in logistics, the median salary was $74,000 in 2010. The lowest 10 percent of the salary distribution was $43,5000 and the top 10 percent was $108,000. Jobs in logistics are available for people from all education levels and do not necessarily require a bachelor’s degree for lower-level positions. Also, the industry tends to train and promote low-level employees rather than hiring externally for management positions.
The main reason for job growth in the field of logistics is the increase of warehouses in the Riverside area. The Inland Empire has the biggest concentration of warehouses in the nation. The three Amazon distribution centers in Southern California that opened in the last three years are all in Riverside and San Bernardino Counties. Amazon hires thousands of seasonal employees in its three centers, and many of the jobs can become regular, full-time positions. It also pays its employees at its distribution centers 30% higher than traditional retail store jobs. Sketchers also has a massive distribution center in Riverside County that provides for many blue-collar jobs that are higher-paying than traditional blue-collar jobs.
The recent growth of high-tech warehouses in the Inland Empire has been one of the main reasons of why low-skilled workers are able enjoy higher-paying jobs. Working in these high-tech warehouses is no longer the traditional low-skill and low-wage work of hard labor without the opportunity for training and advancement. For example, the Sketchers warehouse in Moreno Valley uses the latest technology and equipment to mix and match 21,000 boxes of shoes every hour. The employees for warehouses like this in the Inland Empire are certainly well-paid and enjoy a better work-life than traditional warehouse employees. However, these warehouses also require fewer workers because of the technology.
The recent revitalization of Riverside is in many ways the result of several coordinated and complementary programs. The 20-year Seizing Our Destiny plan was a bold vision that brought together many members of the community. It was propelled by the initiative of former Mayor Ron Loveridge in 2009. The Riverside Renaissance was also an unprecedented level commitment by the city leadership to improve public facilities and buildings by approving over $1.6 billion to be spent in various projects throughout the city. Initiatives by the city’s leadership for programs such as the SmartRiverside engaged at-risk youth while simultaneously helping low-income families was another important component.
The significant economic growth that Riverside has experienced can be attributed to various factors. The investments made by the city in its public facilities, parks, and roads, as well as the renovation and expansion of many of the city’s historic buildings, led to may construction jobs for blue-collar workers. Riverside’s business friendly policies and various resources and incentives for small businesses attracted more businesses and companies to the city, creating jobs for young professionals. Finally, the increase of warehouses for manufacturing and logistics in and near Riverside has brought about higher-paying blue-collar jobs for the residents in the city who have not attained higher education.
The tremendous revitalization that Riverside has experienced can be seen as a testament to the importance of local government and the leadership of the mayor and city council. With the help of external factors such as increase of warehouses in the Inland Empire, the leaders of Riverside used innovation, technology, and leadership to ensure that the city has avoided the future foreseen for the region by the Public Policy Institute of California in 2008. Although there are still many problems to tackle for a city of over 300,000 residents, Riverside has shown much growth and appears to have a bright future.
This article was originally published in the Spring 2015 issue of the Inland Empire Outlook, a publication of the Rose institute of State and Local Government and Lowe Institute of Political Economy at Claremont McKenna College.