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Richmond Mayor’s Green Dream Still Distant

Mitchell Smith tells RichmondBUILD students about rooftop safety before he lets them up on the roof to start installing solar panels
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Mitchell Smith tells RichmondBUILD students about rooftop safety before he lets them up on the roof to start installing solar panels
 
The city known for refineries and high crime faces hurdles in forging a new, clean-tech identity

Inside a former warehouse on South 27th Street near Cutting Boulevard, 30 students, mostly in their 20s, are gathered around the skeleton of a small house that’s all exposed beams, plywood, and electrical wiring.

The students are bundled up in coats and hooded sweatshirts, arms pulled in and hoods up. Despite the cold, they are engaged—sometimes laughing and joking, but focused. They’re getting ready to climb a ladder to the roof of the house for their first lesson in installing solar panels.

Mitchell Smith, training and placement manager for Solar Richmond, stands in the middle of the group, assessing a student’s demonstration of harness fitting. He peppers his talk with small maxims that speak to being a good employee.

“You’ve got to be what?” he asks the class. “You’ve always got to be professional and teachable.”

This is the RichmondBUILD Green Jobs Training Academy, a program that trains low-income, unemployed residents for jobs in green technology and construction.

It’s a point of pride for newly re-elected mayor Gayle McLaughlin, who sees green jobs and green businesses as the key to a more prosperous Richmond.

With a Council dominated by her allies set to take office in January, the mayor is free to pursue her vision of a green future for the city.

She wants to bring in environmentally friendly businesses, train people for jobs in green technology and construction, restyle the city’s image and make sustainability a central requirement in city planning and development.

It’s a tall order. Obstacles include the city’s stubbornly high unemployment rate, now at 18 percent; a less-educated workforce than in surrounding cities; and Richmond’s reputation as a polluted and dangerous place to do business. But Richmond also has some advantages, including large amounts of affordable office and manufacturing space, and proximity to the research labs in Berkeley.

Green space, green jobs

When James Sheppard was looking for office and manufacturing space for his green company, he found a competitive edge in Richmond. The city’s efforts to build a green hub attracted him. But more important, Richmond was the only Bay Area city where the company could afford the 40,000 square feet of manufacturing space needed to expand production for Vetrazzo, which makes countertops from recycled glass.

“Do not underestimate the import of having a real estate base,” he said, “Oakland’s got some decent options, Berkeley has none, San Francisco is too expensive and too onerous. Richmond has a major differentiator in its available real estate.”

There are 64 green businesses in Richmond, according to a recent study commissioned by the city and paid for by federal grant money. In all, such businesses account for 1,837 Richmond jobs.

A third of green jobs in Richmond are in renewable energy, mostly solar. Nearly a quarter are in transportation, with the rest in recycling, environmental services and remediation, and green building materials, construction and landscaping. The four largest employers—SunPower, BART Richmond Repair Shop, Sim’s Metal Recycling and Chevron’s biofuels research division—make up more than half of those.

But according to the study, only 14 percent of the green jobs in Richmond are held by city residents.

The problem with green jobs, says Joe Fisher, a realtor and treasurer for the Black American Political Action Committee, is that they often require more training or education than many of the city’s unemployed have.

“There’s a lot of unemployed here, and there’s also a lot of undereducated,” he said, “A lot of green jobs take a higher level of education.”

Some green fields, like solar installation or energy efficiency auditing, do not require a lot of education or training, but even those jobs are inaccessible to many residents, said Don Gosney, a political activist who supported John Ziesenhenne for mayor.

“Some of our elected officials do not want to take a look at the workforce that we have here in Richmond,” he said, “and ask, ‘Can they get these jobs with the little bit of education they may have, with the limited language that they may have, with the criminal and drug records that they have?’”

Carleen Fuller believes the answer is yes— with the right training.

Sitting at one of the long tables at the Richmond BUILD training facility while Smith instructs the class behind her, Fuller says she has been sober two years.

“I spent many, many years addicted to drugs and alcohol,” she says, “I wanted to do something different with my life.”

Fuller is now an intern with Solar Richmond, which partners with the city’s RichmondBUILD program to teach solar installation. Her fellow intern, Erica Lindsey, says that she has seen many similar transformations.

Lindsey points to a young student on the roof, hair buzzed short and lined up clean. “He cut off his dreadlocks just last week,” she says. “He’s trying to change. A lot of them are. It’s inspiring.”

The 17-week program is free for students, but costs between four and five thousand dollars for one person to complete, says Sal Vaca, head of the city’s employment and training department. It’s paid for by a mix of federal, state, city and private funds, but the majority comes from stimulus funds. As those dwindle, Vaca said the program will have to find other sources to continue at its current level. And with only 30 slots in each class, RichmondBUILD gets hundreds of applications for each cycle.

“They have a waiting list that is huge,” said Pastor Henry Washington of Garden of Peace Ministries, “and unemployment among some ethnicities is up around 30 or 40 percent.”

Against such a backdrop, some critics of the mayor say that her green focus is myopic. Although there is growth in green industries, says Gosney, the numbers are still quite small.

“There needs to be a balance between green industry and the real world,” Gosney said. “It would be great if we could just pass an edict and say everything’s got to be clean and it’s got to be green. But it’s not financially sustainable sometimes.”

Gosney points to the mayor’s vote against a deal to bring Honda vehicles through the port of Richmond, expected to bring 200 jobs and upwards of $60 million in revenue to the city, as indication that the focus on green may actually keep businesses out of Richmond. And he said he’s worried the new council will only make it harder for businesses that aren’t explicitly green to come to town.

McLaughlin said she opposed the Honda project only because she wanted tighter regulations on air pollution at the port. After local environmentalists filed a lawsuit, that regulation has been put in place, which satisfied the mayor’s original criticisms.

“It is not correct, as some have said, that I only support green businesses, and green jobs,” she said. “Clean-tech jobs are the jobs of the 21st Century, and it’s important we draw from this sector.”

The mayor said when the economy bounces back, it will bring new employment opportunities for Richmond’s small but growing pool of green workers. Until then, she sees the city as a primary driver of green work.

Over the past few years, the city has put several policy changes in place. Richmond’s green building ordinance requires environmentally sustainable practices and energy efficiency in all new buildings. The council banned Styrofoam food containers, built up the city’s bike paths, and encouraged community gardens.

Solar panel installation permitting fees have been waived, and the city helps low-income homeowners pay for energy efficiency audits. The Civic Center complex has been solarized, and the city now produces the highest solar energy per capita in the Bay Area.

McLaughlin is set to bring an initiative to City Council to solarize all Richmond city buildings. This, she said, would put some of RichmondBUILD’s graduates to work, because of a policy she helped put in place that requires companies with city contracts to designate at least a quarter of their hours for Richmond residents. She’d also like to see more city-sponsored work to revamp the downtown area.

Riding Berkeley’s coattails

The next step, says Thomas Mills, head of Richmond’s Office of Economic Development, is leveraging the city’s geography to tap into the green-tech and clean-tech startups spinning off from research facilities in Berkeley as well as the network of venture capitalists scouting for new businesses there.

“We see ourselves as the next step after Berkeley," he said. "Companies can come here to expand.”

The city is planning a green business ‘welcome center’ that would showcase what Richmond has to offer and provide information for business owners thinking of setting up shop.

It’s the first of nearly two dozen recommendations in the green jobs study. Others include increasing networking between existing green businesses, expanding RichmondBUILD training programs, and developing amenities to make Richmond appealing to relocating businesses.

Part of the city’s green dream is to bring the planned Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory expansion to Richmond. The lab is seeking space to expand its solar energy and energy-efficient building research. Although the lab has not yet called for bids, the city’s redevelopment agency is working with the Chamber of Commerce and the Council of Industries to mobilize its efforts to make Richmond as appealing as possible.

The city has also been working on streamlining the permitting process for green businesses and making it easier to get inspections by city officers. That’s welcome news for James Sheppard, who said that red tape was a key frustration when Vetrazzo set up shop.

Vetrazzo was bought by a company in Georgia over the summer, which moved its manufacturing out of state. He said the company left because it was bought out, not because Richmond was a bad place to do business.

The mayor’s vision of a thriving green economy in Richmond is still a way off, but she said the changes are underway, and it will take time.

“Richmond’s image has been shaped in many ways by having polluting industry in our city,” she said, “It’s important to realize just how far we’ve come. We have a long way to go but we’ll continue.”

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