Organizations Focus on Economic Development in South L.A.

When it comes to economic development in South L.A., entrepreneurs have been trying to catch up in the years since 1992. Developers say there's still a lot of untapped potential. KPCC's Brian Watt reports.

[Sound of people riding bus; announcement: "So we're coming up on Chesterfield Square, which is Slauson and Western."]

Brian Watt: At an intersection where buildings burned 15 years ago, a guide on Operation Hope's Bankers Bus tour points out a thriving Radio Shack and Home Depot that went up five yeas ago. Operation Hope founder John Bryant can't help but jump in.

John Bryant: There is also a Starbucks in there – one of the highest producing in the country.

Watt: Bryant started his organization just after the "riots" – when he took a more depressing tour of the same area. Now, he'll tell anybody who'll listen that the storms of Spring 1992 generated a rainbow of re-investment.

The next stop on the tour – the Village at Century shopping center in Inglewood – reinforces Bryant's point. This brand new mall would look right at home in a well-to-do suburb. Inglewood Mayor Roosevelt Dorn beamed as he bragged about it.

Roosevelt Dorn: Red Lobster. Chili's. Bed Bath and Beyond. Ross. Marshalls. I mean, these are places it was unheard of, as far as coming into a predominantly black and brown city. And they're here. Now, they're getting a Chili's in Compton, and I understand they're gonna get a Red Lobster, too, because everything worked well here, so they said "Now we gotta go out there and try it."

Watt: Indeed, some real estate developers and big retail and restaurant chains have learned there's money to be made in South Los Angeles. Magic Johnson may have netted the most good press with his movie theaters and Starbucks franchises. Other companies – like Walgreens, Pep Boys, Ralphs, and Wal-Mart have expanded there, too.

Small local businesses have also been part of the rebirth since the riots. They're all cashing in on an often-ignored concentration of educated and middle class households that represent a surprising amount of buying power. So what's missing?

Tunua Thomas: The South L.A. region is majorly under-banked.

Watt: That's Tunua (Thrash) Thomas of the West Angeles Community Development Corporation – an affiliate of West Angeles Church of God in Christ. After running all kinds of numbers, she and her colleagues will tell you that for every 10,000 households in South L.A., there are only about one-and-a-half banks. That average more than doubles in the rest of L.A. County.

Thomas: There's lots of people, and lots of money, but we've found that there's no place for them to put it.

Watt: So West Angeles is partnering with Union Bank of California to upgrade the bank's presence at the intersection of Crenshaw and Jefferson Boulevards. They expect construction to start in the fall on a new commercial office and retail center that'll house the bank branch and 14 other businesses. Planners estimate the development will bring 150 new jobs to the area. Union Bank's Cesar Trelles says 15 of those jobs will be with his company.

Cesar Trelles: We're very excited about it. I think it's going to revitalize that area, and hopefully continue with all the progress that is being made along the Crenshaw corridor in South L.A.

Watt: West Angeles is also developing something else the area could use: places to live.

[Sound of walking through foyer of Senior Home]

The community development corporation's offices on Crenshaw just south of Slauson sit in the shadow of West Angeles Villas – 150 new high-rise units. The building looks like a very nice hotel inside and out, but there's no room at this inn. It's an affordable housing development for seniors. Lula Ballton runs the non-profit.

Lula Ballton: Instead of having something that looked like a trailer and smelled like Ben-Gay, we wanted to have a resort feel. So, a sunny, very open space...

Watt: The development arm of West Angeles Church has built other apartments for renters of modest means, and it's putting around 250 new condominiums and townhouses in the pipeline for sale.

Every year, more than 3000 people complete a class West Angeles offers on how to buy a home. And many of them would like to buy in South L.A.