Monthly Archives: November 2011

Greg McConnell: Is Oakland Worth It?

This guest post was written by Gregory McConnell, President and CEO of the Jobs and Housing Coalition, which represents major businesses in Oakland.

Many Oakland business people are asking whether Oakland is still a good place to invest. As I talk to small and big business people all around the city, I hear the constant question. Is it time to pack up and leave?

Phil Tagami told me that several tenants have talked to him about leaving the Rotunda and taking hundreds of jobs out of the city. The small shops in Frank Ogawa Plaza report that business is off 30 to 50%. The Tribune Tower managers say they can no longer tolerate the fact that their building is frequently forced to close because Broadway between 13th and 14th Streets is usually the epicenter of unrest.

On Wednesday, a client attending a conference at the Marriott called and asked if it was safe to eat at Jack London Square, I told her no, it had been shut down. Another business group that has invested in Oakland brought its national board of directors to the Bay Area. They too had plans to stay at the Marriott and visit potential sites in Oakland for new investment. Instead, they went to San Francisco fearful of riots and unruly mobs.

City officials are assessing the impact of the occupancy on our fragile economy. They will be looking at reduced sales at restaurants, lost revenues at retail outlets, lost leases, and lost jobs. We will have empirical evidence soon, but for people who lost a lot in broken windows and shattered confidence, and workers who have been told to go home, or have been laid off, the impacts are already known.

All of this begs the question. Is Oakland worth it?

No, if our leaders allow long-term unlawful occupancy of our public spaces. No, if the police are forced to hide away in the City Center parking lot under a “minimal presence” order, thereby forcing property owners to arm themselves and risk their lives. No, if graffiti and broken windows are acceptable. No, if the city does not protect the people that employ the 99% and serve the residents.

On the other hand, there are many reasons to say yes. Oakland is still one of the most beautiful places on the planet. It is rich with caring, intelligent people who work hard and engage in community affairs. We have young entrepreneurs who are opening small businesses. We have new innovative companies like Pandora, Sungevity and BrightSource Energy that are bring thousands of jobs to the city. Large corporations have established foundations that give back, Kaiser foundation and the Rogers Family Foundation are just a couple of examples.

Most Oaklanders share the outrage at the failure of our economic system. It rewards a small segment and seems to ignore the plight of every day working people who are losing jobs, homes, investments, and worse, the optimism that has always allowed us to think that our lives will get better. The Occupy Movement has brought this to our nation’s attention. For this, we are grateful.

Nevertheless, we have to distinguish between our shared anger at Wall Street and the occupancy of Frank Ogawa Plaza and lawlessness in our streets. Oakland’s business people are not Wall Street profiteers. They are people like you and me who wake up in the morning and work to feed their families.

The owner of Café Teatro hires four people to sell coffee and sandwiches. She is not rich and she is not exploiting anyone. The owner of Rising Loafer is in the same boat. Well before the occupancy, she frequently talked to me about her outrage at corporate America. Tully’s supported the occupancy with donations of food and cleaning supplies, before their windows were smashed. Each of these businesses will be forced to shut down, and the people they employ will be jobless, if the unlawful occupancy of Ogawa Plaza and violence in the streets continues.

I believe that this too shall pass. It needs to happen soon. If it does, YES, OAKLAND IS WORTH IT. But, if we don’t do something soon to change our downward spiral, we may lose the city.

On Thursday night, I took visiting business people to Pican Restaurant. My mission was to help a local business, which has seen a 40% decline in sales over the last few weeks, while trying to give potential Oakland businesses confidence that the city is still functioning. I hope others will do something similar to support Oakland businesses that create jobs and revenues for this struggling city.

We all honor Oakland’s long history of promoting peace and justice. Nevertheless, we need to acknowledge that there is a big difference between supporting efforts to change Wall Street and the unlawful encampment that is destroying the city, our local business people, and their employees.

I urge the residents of Oakland to tell our leaders that support for changing Wall Street and ending unconscionable corporate greed, does not equate to support for an on-going unlawful occupancy. Please write the Mayor, the Council, and the City Administrator. Tell them to end the occupancy and lawlessness in our streets. Let them know that this caring community also cares about working people and businessmen and women who bring jobs to the city.

When we make that clear, I trust that our leaders will find a way to end the unlawful occupancy. If they do not, perhaps we will need to end the occupancy outside and inside city hall.