“Well sometimes, you’ve got to get sick my boy, before you start feeling better.”
That’s a line from “The Great Realisation,” a video uploaded to YouTube by British artist and poet “Probably Tomfoolery” on April 29. The video features a father telling his young son about the pre-2020 world – a “world of waste and wonder. Of poverty and plenty.”
But then he talks about how the COVID-19 pandemic and the damage it has done has forced us to take a break from the normal and look forward at what we can do to make the world and our lives better.
That is powerful advice not just for individuals like you and me, but for organizations and institutions like the City of West Hollywood and the Chamber of Commerce.
The negative impact of the pandemic is likely to be discussed to some degree at tonight’s City Council meeting and surely will be a subject of discussion by the City Council’s Finance and Budget Subcommittee, which is having an unprecedented public (albeit by telephone) meeting on Tuesday. City Manager Paul Arevalo already has publicly stated that the city may experience a revenue shortfall of $15 to $20 million this year and next year.
A big part of that shortfall will come from the sharp decline in hotel room tax revenue, which is a major contributor to the city’s budget. COVID-19 has effectively halted travel and tourism, and its impact on that industry is likely to extend beyond the end of the pandemic as corporations that used to fly employees around the country for meetings are now learning to save money and time with Skype or Zoom.
We don’t know when the COVID-19 pandemic will end. But perhaps this is the time to start planning what we will do when we start feeling better, the time to rethink the structure of West Hollywood’s economy.
Our economy relies heavily on travel and tourism and nightlife and entertainment. Our small city has 21 hotels (and more in the planning pipeline) and more alcohol-vending bars and restaurants per capita than any other city in California. Let’s keep them. But let’s also consider the particular vulnerability of the travel and tourism industries. For most people, spending on travel and nightlife is the first thing they cut when the economy goes south.
Let’s also consider that the low wages paid to the workers in those industries are one reason why we have so much traffic in West Hollywood (80% of the people who work in our expensive city don’t live here). Their traffic to and from work, and the driving by non-WeHo residents through our city to work elsewhere, are major reasons for our dismal air quality. (The dramatic increase in WeHo air quality during last year’s CicLAvia “Meet the Hollywoods” event– which stopped traffic for a day — proved that). We can talk on and on about how progressive and “green” we are, but installing a few solar panels or electric car changing stations will make little or no difference if we can’t curb the traffic. (We should, like Aspen, Colo., foster the development of affordable workforce housing so hotel workers don’t have to drive back and forth from South L.A. or the Valley and local bartenders don’t have to sleep four to a one-bedroom WeHo apartment.)
In restructuring our economy, West Hollywood should consider how to encourage the development of industries that can pay the sort of wages that allow their employees to live in this expensive city, industries that won’t be as vulnerable to the sort of economic downturns that hit the tourism and nightlife industries so hard.
As I have suggested in the past, our city leaders should read the works of Richard Florida for inspiration. Florida, author of “The Rise of the Creative Class,” has documented that cities with high concentrations of tech workers, artists, musicians, and LGBT people are likely to experience greater economic development with the sort of creative businesses that attract capital these days. That’s if the city welcomes them.
WEHOville has over the years profiled local digital entrepreneurs in West Hollywood – some of whom were unaware of our City Hall or our Chamber of Commerce. One, Firas Bushnaq, worked out of a small office behind the old EatWell restaurant on Santa Monica Boulevard at Harper. Bushnaq sold his Orbitera cloud-based software business for $100 million to Google and it was moved to Mountain View. Then there is Blaine Vess, whose StudyMode website was so popular he had to dramatically increase his staff and move out of the small office space over Café d’Etoile. But Vess couldn’t find room for his 60 employees in West Hollywood and so moved to Hollywood and in 2017 sold his digital business for $58 million. There are more who moved on because of similar issues.
Restructuring the city’s economy should be the major focus of Vision 2050, the 30-year-strategic plan that now is being crafted with input from community stakeholders and residents . But to do that the City of West Hollywood, governed by a Council whose members have no experience in running a business of any size, should reach outside our bubble to find someone to help create that plan. The Brookings Institution, McKinsey & Company, even Richard Florida if we could be lucky enough to engage him.
So let’s make the most of the worst and take the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to reconsider what West Hollywood is all about, where West Hollywood is headed, and how we’re going to get there.