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Mayor Aja Brown unfurls surprises in Compton address

Mayor Aja Brown has made significant gains in just two years at the helm COMPTON—Halfway through her first term as Compton’s youngest chief executive, Mayor Aja Brown stood calmly at the podium at the Douglas F. Dollarhide

Mayor Aja Brown has made significant gains in just two years at the helm

COMPTON—Halfway through her first term as Compton’s youngest chief executive, Mayor Aja Brown stood calmly at the podium at the Douglas F. Dollarhide Community Center, July 10, looking stunning in a ruby red Empire suit, waiting for a clumsy moment of lighting difficulties to resolve, poised to deliver her first State of the City address that brought some surprises

Most in attendance at two sites — Dollarhide Center and those at a big screen party at El Camino College-Compton Center — where the entry ticket was $100, had no idea what she was going to say. After all, upon taking office after victory over two formidable opponents — 12-year incumbent Eric Perrodin and two-time mayor Omar Bradley — as she would say later, “I knew the road wasn’t going to be easy and the challenges great” facing a massive challenge where, as she said, “our streets hadn’t been maintained properly in more than 90 years… the city lacked basic tools to address failed infrastructure… the citizens were angry, businesses weary,” and as if that were not enough, she added, the city had lost its credit rating, owed outstanding debt, was in poor standing with many vendors due to years of poor governance with  unemployment hovering at 16.1 percent — twice the county and state average, down from a peak of 23 percent during the height of the recession.

Brown entered office with a city in shambles operating under the weight of a daunting $42 million deficit, amid a storm of criticism by many who considered her too young and green to run a city, pouncing on her almost immediately, citing illegal polling (though unproven) and the advantages of a $100 thousand campaign enhancement by Second District Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, whom her detractors charged, bought the office to be orchestrated by him through a puppet.

The untested politician said she had the tools to turn the city around, even the street violence that had plagued Compton for years and which spiked in 2013 with more handgun mayhem and murders than the city had seen in years.

Two years after accepting the mantle of leadership and one year following the 125th anniversary of Compton, Mayor Brown may have given her critics pause.

“I have heard from city residents [through] various focus groups on where to begin,” Brown said, adding that after a working as an urban planner for more than 10 years in Compton and Inglewood, she is “well-equipped with a 12-point Game Plan built on the values of the Compton community.”

Outlining the progress she has made over two years, Brown said her strategy was and has been to cultivate strong people to under-gird a strong community. “Before we can revitalize any city, especially one as iconic as Compton,” she noted, the toughest issues had to be ameliorated first. “We had to get the city’s financial house in order to be deemed investment worthy.”

The first fire Brown knocked down working in concert the City Council was to bring pre-existing outstanding audits and obligations current.

“We reduced [our] HUD debt by $4.3 million and repaid approximately $8 million in outstanding debt to the State of California,” Brown said to applause, then going on to cite additional achievements such as the restoration of critical public safety positions in city, the hiring of 34 new firefighters, 191 new employees, and the resumption of a 40-hour work schedule for the city’s workforce. “We [even] provided cost-of-living increases,” she said.

The mayor was only warming up. The council approved a 15-year repayment plan to eliminate the city’s massive $42 million deficit, as well as a restructuring of existing bonds to save the general fund millions annually. “We passed our second balance fiscal year budget with a surplus,” the mayor stated. “We are on a swift road to recovery.

“Three years ago financial experts predicted it would require a decade to recover our credit rating, but today those same experts are amazed by the city’s quick turnaround,”  Brown said, then declaring, “Next month we are headed back to Standard & Poor to restore our [credit] rating and seal the deal,” eliciting raucous applause, as those in attendance at the Dollarhide Center approved what they were hearing.

One of the nagging thorns in Compton city governance over decades has been its inability to repair and maintain city streets and thoroughfares, which, as the mayor noted, have not been resurfaced in nearly a century — almost as long as Compton has existed. It has long been known that cracked, “potholed,” and unlevel streets contribute to damaged vehicles insofar as inordinate tire wear and imbalanced wheel alignments, negatively impacting the budgets of local motorists.  In the last two years on Brown’s watch, the city has made headway as the council has appropriated funding to repair 19,000 potholes, replace 2,200 street lights, and allocated $9 million in the current fiscal budget to re-pave 88 residential streets, equating to approximately 10 miles of city streets.

But the attention of city residents is primarily riveted as to when the city is going to get around to the long-awaited re-pavement of its two vastly cratered main thoroughfares — Central and Wilmington Avenue.

“I’ve got great news,” the mayor declared. “The city has received a $1 million grant for Wilmington Avenue between El Segundo [Boulevard] and Rosecrans [Avenue], including sidewalks and bike lanes.” The work is currently in the design phase, [scheduled to] break ground on [the] work in 2016.

Brown said the city “also received $1.1 million in grant funds” from the Metropolitan Transit Administration for repair of Central Avenue, where design work is also underway to be followed by groundbreaking in 2016.

Another element of city frustration has to do with Compton’s stubborn street crime exacerbated by prostitution and street gang mayhem.

“We will no longer tolerate human trafficking in our community, focusing on human trafficking and street prostitution on Long Beach Boulevard,” Mayor Brown said, noting that the city is working closely with the county sheriff’s department and several other law enforcement agencies to interdict trafficking, including opening a drop-in center on Long Beach Boulevard for intervention and counseling.

The Brown administration has also taken aim at gang violence through prevention and intervention protocols. “On the prevention side we have launched mentoring programs now in its second year meeting the needs of our most challenged youth,” Brown said, who went on to share a significant leap toward the goal of gang peace in Compton.

Working through a “street” contact, the mayor and her team met with 75 local gang leaders in June 2014 to discuss the goal of peace in Compton, in which the men ultimately agreed to a ceasefire. As ceasefires are often fragile agreements, ebbing and flowing, Brown has been beset by criticism for claiming the mayhem has been reduced by more than half since summer 2015, when in actuality violence has spiked recently with at least five shootings in the past month.

Still, the city moved ahead to develop an intervention program, offering leadership and life skill training, Brown said, and “to connect the community to legal services to remove barriers to employment.”

The city teamed up with the county sheriff’s department in 2013 to write a public safety grant for $250,000 for gang prevention and intervention programs.

“We have [also] installed cameras in public areas and parks” staffed with additional personnel to maintain public safety,” Brown said, [and] we have partnered with several non-profits to empower youth, offering youth enrichment programs and youth involvement mostly through local school.”

The mayor has been busy in her first two years, appearing to leave no portion of the social fabric ignored. On behalf of seniors, the Dollarhide Center opened in 2014 to serve the unique needs of seniors, along with meals, exercise programs, enrichment programs, and pick-up and delivery services. Phase 1 of a new Metro-at-Compton Senior Living complex opened across the street from the Dollarhide Center, with Phase 2 breaking ground in September this year.

Mayor Brown has also demonstrated an ability to flex her muscle in leveraging companies to work in the best interest of the city and its residents when seeking to do business with the city. One of those corporate concerns, Trammell Crow Company, one of the nation’s oldest and most prolific developers of, and investors in, commercial real estate. TCC promised 1,000 jobs to Compton in relation to the construction of the Brickyard Light Industrial Project that will erase the eyesore that is the Brickyard located in the vicinity of Central and Rosecrans Avenues in northwest Compton.

The project has been a bone of contention with some Compton residents, notably homeowners adjacent to the site. Their fears were plausible: noise and fuel emission pollution and damaged streets from heavy truck traffic. The mayor and council did not approve the deal with Trammell Crow until the final hour, negotiating certain guarantees for the city in lieu of doing business in Compton.

“I teamed up with city attorney in anticipation of new business investment in Compton for a Community Benefits Agreement,” said Brown, which underscored promises by Trammell Crow such as $9 million in public improvements, infrastructure and community reinvestment, mandates like preference in hiring a minimum of 35 percent Compton residents for permanent construction jobs and training programs to match.

The Community Benefits Agreement “was to make sure local residents are trained and prepared. These employment thresholds aren’t just goals, but legally enforceable,” said Brown. The accord passed unanimously in the council.

“The city will receive almost $10 million in benefits,” from Trammell Crow, said Brown, that will include street reconstruction including Central Avenue, traffic mitigation improvements, $45,000 in funding for Jackie Robinson Stadium, nearly a half million dollars for the Compton Unified School District, $250,000 for job training programs in the city, priority bidding for local minority sub-contractors (including women), local hiring, and $60,000 annually for a local heavy truck traffic maintenance fund to maintain the Central and Wilmington thoroughfares. Trammell Crow will also provide $1.4 million in tax revenue to the city.

Other business investment sealed on Mayor Brown’s watch includes a Walmart Super Store replacing the old Compton Fashion Center, scheduled to open in 2016, and a Smart & Final Extra full format grocery store opening this year to replace Ralphs, which closed in Compton recently.

But, the mayor whose address was more than two hours long, wasn’t finished. “Now that we’ve made headway in the retail and food areas, there’s definitely a need for entertainment options,” she said, hardly able to contain herself. “I’m excited to announce that we’ve been in negotiation with a new movie theater and entertainment complex that will be developed right here in the City of Compton. The theater will offer 16 screens, restaurant options, and more than 150 jobs [for] the Compton community.” The mayor withheld the name of the complex pending a signed agreement. Recently, the City of Carson next door to Compton opened a 14-screen Cinemark theater complex. Whoever Compton brings in will offer sure competition.

Steak ‘n Shake, a 400-store restaurant chain offering steakburgers and hand-dipped milkshakes among other entrees, side items and drinks, is being offered by Prism Developers to be located in the second phase construction of the Gateway Town Center.

There’s more. “In line with our newly-launched Healthy Compton Initiative to improve health and organic food options in Compton, we will be welcoming Pressed Juicery,” said Brown, that will offer a myriad of health options including exercise programs. It will be a partnership store that will return a portion of their proceeds back to Compton.”

Other projects on tap, said Brown, include restoration of the Compton Fire Academy to reopen include cosmetology and pre-apprenticeship construction training programs, scheduled for opening in Fall 2016, bank teller and retail customer service training, maintenance training, recording/broadcast, multi-media & technology, choreographer & dance instruction “right here in the City of Compton,” Brown said.

The mayor appeared to make a strong case for her ability to lead based on her successes and initiatives outlined in the SOTC address, but there remained some disgruntled residents miffed by the mayor’s and Compton Chamber of Commerce decision to create two venues for the SOTC — a sit down fundraising dinner at the Dollarhide Center boasting $5,000 platinum and $2,500 gold admission tickets; and a second venue across town at the El Camino College-Compton Center gymnasium, which cost $100 for the price of admission to watch the address via big screen.

Mayor Brown stated in her address that monies accrued at the SOTC fundraiser dinner will benefit youth in Compton through Urban Vision Community Development Corporation, a non-profit 501(3)c located in Compton and run by her husband Van A. Brown.

Jarrette Fellows, Jr. is Publisher and Editor of Compton Herald. He attended junior and senior high school in Compton, and is an alumnus of California State University, Los Angeles.

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