85.7 F
San Fernando
Wednesday, Jun 7, 2023

Burbank’s Futurist

Thomas Flavin came out of an 18-month retirement to take over as chief executive for the Burbank Chamber of Commerce in 2016. Flavin has long history of service in both the public and non-profit sectors, including as executive vice president of the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp. and the mayor of Burbank in the early 1990s. He also has run various economic development groups and business associations in Denver, Seattle and the Coachella Valley. Flavin has witnessed the city evolve from an aerospace center to an entertainment hub with a dynamic media district that is home to Walt Disney Co., Warner Bros. and NBCUniversal’s Burbank Studios. The Business Journal caught up with Flavin to ask about Burbank’s strengthening economy, the need for additional housing and the evolving role of the chamber. Question: Why did you take the chief executive job? Answer: I was actually retired, but I’d had a long history in Burbank. I’d been living and working in Denver and Seattle for nearly 20 years. I was approached to reinvigorate the chamber to reflect the changes in our communities in California. So, they brought me back to develop a strategy to make the right changes. What positions did you hold in Burbank prior to working with the chamber? I worked for the city manager’s office in the 1970s. I served in elected and appointed capacities in the ’80s and into the early ’90s. I guess my claim to fame is that I had been mayor for three days when Lockheed Corp. announced they were moving 10,000 jobs to Marietta, Georgia. How did Burbank withstand the loss of Lockheed and the aerospace industry in general? While it was very controversial before the Lockheed announcement, we had the wonderful opportunity with the major studios in the entertainment industry, which wanted to expand here in Burbank. We worked through a process of defining the parameters and how to predict (growth) in nearby neighborhoods. We actually passed that in 1991. And I’m coming back 20-plus years later and seeing the reality of how it turned out, I believe we accomplished what we set out to do. We gave Burbank a new economic life, and we preserved the nearby neighborhoods. How has the role of chambers of commerce changed in recent years? In 2012, Sacramento dissolved the redevelopment agencies in California. For Burbank and most cities in California, that was their primary economic development tool. Since then, cities have been trying to fill that void, which has been difficult to do. Frankly, it was the best economic development tool that I’ve worked with in any state. So, what we see at the Burbank Chamber of Commerce is playing a stronger role in economic development and partnering with the city. How do you plan to increase the chamber’s economic role? We’re organizing a new 501(c)3 entity that is going to be an affiliate but separate from the chamber. It will be able to access third-party funding, which chambers cannot. It will be an opportunity to leverage local funds with private and grant funds from other sources to execute a more robust economic development program. What kind of development projects should Burbank focus on? First of all, Burbank has very unique and strong job base. We’ve got over 154,000 jobs in a community that’s got about 108,000 people. As I say, pound for pound, Burbank has got the best job base of any market I’ve ever been in. But we also have the experience of having lost Lockheed Corp., which at one time was our biggest employer, property owner and taxpayer in the city. So, we don’t want that to happen again to us. We need to really focus on employer and workforce issues. Issues like workforce housing, transportation services and also encouraging quality new investment in Burbank so we can grow our tax base. How important is housing? It’s extremely important. Burbank hasn’t built much housing of any type in the last 10 to 15 years. I think the numbers over the last five years show we’ve built 53 housing units. And at the same time over the last five years, the job base has increased by probably 40,0000 to 50,000 jobs. I think the U.S. Census in 2015 found that there are 187,000 daily trips to and from Burbank by people living outside who work here. Well, that creates traffic problems. If those people lived here, they’d be spending their money here, contributing to the future of the community here and mitigating the traffic and environmental issues that are associated with that kind of traffic. What are some of the housing developments that are planned? We’ve got some good projects underway, one that was just recently approved – First Street project with about 250 units. We’ve got the Talaria project over in the media district, which is going to add another 250 units. And we’ve got the Ikea redevelopment at the old Ikea site (1,173 units). Where does the Ikea project stand right now? I’m told that by the end of the year it’s going be in front of the Planning Board and City Council. The beauty of these projects is that none of them will have an impact on (residential areas) because they’re in the downtown district, media district and then ultimately in the airport district. They would be primarily mixed-use housing. There’d be a good housing mix for the workforce, for executives as well as affordable housing units. It’s going to take all of us working together to shape that future, but we have the kind of City Council now that can do that. And we’ve got the business community, which is, through the chamber, going to be actively involved. Burbank recently passed a bond measure to renovate a terminal at the Hollywood-Burbank Airport. Why is it important for the city to invest the airport? In the end, the Hollywood-Burbank airport is never going to pick up and move to Georgia. It’s a tremendous economic catalyst for not only Burbank but the San Fernando Valley, and it’s evolving into a multi-modal transportation hub. We just opened up a second a Metrolink station adjacent to it – the third one in the city. That was one of the first projects we got involved in when I returned in 2016. It was gratifying to see it was so overwhelmingly supported by the voters, because there’s a real convenience factor associated with the airport. I was around here as a staff person when it transitioned from Lockheed ownership to public ownership. It’s always going to be a regional airport, but it’s extremely important to the regional transportation system and to the economy of Southern California. How has the media industry in Burbank evolved? I visited with 52 companies in 2017, and I’ve seen some pretty sophisticated companies in my career, but none more sophisticated than the ones I’m seeing here. A big part of that is the convergence of technology around the entertainment and media industry. Burbank is a storyteller community, with the movies and animation, and with Disney and Warner Bros. And now other technology forums are coming into play in a storytelling capacity. We have some very interesting companies that are likely developing 21st century form of storytelling. So, we want to be able to work with those companies to make sure that their employees are able to live here and commute here in a way that will ensure that they stay here. What other business do you see thriving in Burbank? We have the health care sector with Providence St. Joseph Medical Center. UCLA Health is also here now. The professional and business services sector has really surprised me. And, we’ve got some companies that are doing business globally, some of which had been here a long time and transitioned into that successfully. Others are new and have the dynamic convergence of technology. One of the things that really surprised me 30 years ago, when I was involved here, was the hospitality and tourism industry. Burbank has a very healthy tourism platform now, which can continue to grow. Retail has been huge. In the latter part of the 20th century, retail was missing in Burbank. Now, Burbank is one of the biggest sales tax producers in Southern California. The city has a very diverse tax base and the high-wage jobs that you want, and if we work together as a community, we can set the stage for long-term economic vitality here. What about your personality makes you a good fit to lead the chamber? Well, I grew up here, so I know where the community was back in the ’50s and ’60s. And I was involved in its transition in the ’80s and ’90s from aerospace to another economic base. I also think having the perspective of having worked in Denver and Seattle and seen how other states do things. I’ve brought that mindset back here, in terms of having a real focus on our employers, our workforce and job base. What are some of the differences you’ve noticed between California and other states? They’re very aggressive. Arizona has had business recruiters working in California for the past 30 years. In Denver, they’d take regular trips out here. In Seattle, they’d bring a contingent of economic developers and target companies here. I think basically – and to some extent they’re right – other states feel that to Sacramento, jobs aren’t important in California. And a lot of companies have left California, frankly. In 2008, I commissioned a study while I was in Seattle because the state was having difficulty with Boeing. The economist looked at how many aerospace jobs there were in L.A. County in the 1980s and how many there were in 2008. He found L.A. County had lost over 80 percent of them. What did that tell you? What I learned having been mayor and living through the shock of Lockheed was you can never, ever take your economic wellbeing for granted and you better be working it all the time. And that’s really what other states do. I’d like to see California do more of it. Is there anything specific you’d like the state to change? Its attitude. I think that’s the most important thing, is understanding that businesses are economic assets. In the global economy, they are going to be at risk if we aren’t paying attention to them. What was your first job in government? I was always interested in local government and I got the opportunity to work in the Parks and Recreation Department in Burbank. Then, I got a chance to go to work in the City Manager’s Office, where I was involved in doing the budget, management audits and going out and getting involved in community issues. For example, back in the 1970s, Hollywood-Burbank Airport was transitioning from Lockheed ownership to public ownership. I was involved in that extensively. That really solidified it for me. But I’ve also worked in the private sector. I worked in the cable TV business in the ’80s for Group W doing broadcasting and cable. I worked in the fiber optic business in the ’90s when I moved to Denver. So, I’ve had that private sector, public sector and nonprofit sector experience. What drew you to the public and nonprofit sectors? Public policy impacts everybody, so you want to ensure that good public policy is made. And that’s why I got involved in being an elected official. I always liked the local level because you can really see the tangible results of your efforts. What are some of your hobbies? One of the things I missed when I was away was Vin Scully and the Dodgers. I got back in time for the last part of his career, and I still follow baseball. I’m a real baseball fan. I do a lot of reading and I like listening to other people’s ideas. Some of the best ideas I’ve acted on in my career didn’t come from me. It didn’t come from the bureaucracy. They came from people – individuals who said, ‘Hey, you ought to think about this or you ought to think about doing that.’ I’d like to think of myself as a good listener. What do you love about Burbank? It has a lot of Midwestern values and attitudes because after World War II, many people, like my dad, moved here to get a job in the aerospace industry. He was from Kansas and my mom was from Chicago, and they stayed here like a lot of other people. Burbank still has that sense of community. And even though we are attracting a lot of employees from outside the community, we think that they’re just the kind of people that we’d like to have living here and contributing here.

Featured Articles

Related Articles