LAEDC’s Stephen Cheung On LA’s “Blue-Green” Build Back Better Regional Grant Challenge

Stephen Cheung

Los Angeles was selected in December by the US Economic Development Agency as a finalist in the $1 billion Build Back Better Regional Challenge. The coalition of LA stakeholders—led by the LA County Economic Development Corporation (LAEDC)—is competing with regions nationwide for up to $100 million in ARPA grant funding to implement equitable and sustainable economic recovery strategies–the largest economic development initiative from the US Department of Commerce in decades. VX News interviewed LAEDC COO & WTC LA President Stephen Cheung, who was designated Regional Economic Competitiveness Officer to coordinate the coalition partners and leverage resources to develop and scale blue and green growth innovations within Southern California’s goods movement ecosystem. Cheung elaborates on that vision and the resources LA will leverage to achieve it. 

Los Angeles was named recently a finalist for the billion dollar Build Back Better Regional Challenge Grant, the largest economic development initiative from the US Department of Commerce in decades. What does LA’s selection as a finalist mean and portend for the region?

Stephen Cheung: The US Economic Development Agency (USEDA) issued the Build Back Better regional challenge as a way to stimulate our economy to recover from the devastation that was caused by COVID. They’ve seen the devastating economic impacts that the pandemic had on local communities, and their hope is to be able to help stimulate the region transform our economy through this investment. This is their moonshot project to help local regions find a new way of reinventing their economy, especially targeting communities that have been underserved while driving equity and sustainability as well.

“In LA…we decided to focus on the blue-green economy as it relates to transforming our goods movement ecosystem by improving its efficiency, adding sustainability, and ensuring that there’s equity with the growth of this industry.” —Stephen Cheung

For Los Angeles, this is a chance for us to kickstart key projects that will help us grow and transform some promising industries. For our application, our coalition decided to focus on the blue-green economy as it relates to the goods movement ecosystem. This proposed project by the Los Angeles Consortium is moving forward with transforming our goods movement ecosystem by improving its efficiency, adding sustainability, and ensuring that there’s equity with the growth of this sector.

This Phase 1 $500,000 award allows our coalition to create a regional plan to support the growth of this sector.  The goal is to develop a Phase 2 application that will lead to a potentially larger sum of investment from the US EDA. In total, we could apply for amount between anywhere from $70 to $100 million to help Los Angeles support and transform this industry. This is a huge win for Los Angeles and for our economy.

Bill Allen, the CEO of LAEDC, said in response to notice of that award, “our diverse coalition of public and private partners is thrilled to be awarded these resources to intensify our planning for a more robust equitable, sustainable growth of our goods movement ecosystem.” Elaborate on LAEDC’s diverse coalition and what is meant by the “goods movement ecosystem”.

Well, the coalition group consists of many partners from various industries and sectors. This includes working with nine core coalition members and 36 additional members to support the development of specific projects for the Phase 2 application. The City of Los Angeles with leadership from the Mayor’s Office and the City Council with direct support from key departments including the Economic and Workforce Development Department (EWDD), LA Department of Water and Power (LADWP), Public Works, and the LA Department of Transportation will coordinate and leverage city initiatives and resources. The Port of Los Angeles will leverage its Clean Air Action Plan and resources to reduce port-related emissions and increase GME efficiency and opportunities for underserved communities. AltaSea at the Port of LA will leverage resources to complete the construction of its ‘Center of Innovation’ and lead the ‘Blue Economy Goods Movement’ subproject. Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator (LACI) will train individuals to maintain Battery Electric Vehicles and repair EV charging stations, and support entrepreneurs to advance BEV solutions. Urban Movement Labs (UML) will leverage existing partners working in electric mobility, last-mile goods delivery, and aerial drone delivery to develop a network of micro distribution hubs across LA, and support outreach and engagement. Santa Monica College will leverage its leadership role in the Los Angeles Regional Strong Workforce Consortium of 19 LA area community colleges to upskill and reskill workforce. The Entrepreneur Education Center, Inc. (EECI) will leverage experience and resources to provide leadership for equitable economic development and entrepreneurship among BIPOC and at-risk youth. Long Beach Economic Partnership will leverage resources for workforce and incubation efforts. These are core partners that are working together to make sure that there’s growth and innovation within the sector, and at the same time, there are opportunities for our workforce and entrepreneurs as well.

Of course, we have dozens of other partners that are going to be part of this project including Pledge LA, JPL, the Los Angeles Business Council, the Los Angeles Venture Association, and many others. All these different partners are coming together in order for us to create a comprehensive economic solution that can address these issues: equity, sustainability, growth, and innovation.

The US Commerce Department’s Grant focuses on historically excluded populations and LA’s response to improving both this region’s environment and increasing resiliency of America’s leading gateway. Elaborate more on the grant proposal’s focus on historically excluded populations.

The LAEDC has conducted a number of research reports looking at the economic impact of various macro-economic trends, and in January of 2021 we released the Pathways for Economic Resiliency Report. During the first two months of the pandemic (in March and April of 2020), LA County lost over 772,000 jobs. Many of these jobs are concentrated in industries and sectors with workers that are overrepresented by communities of color and by workers with lower educational attainment. For example, a lot of these workers were in the hospitality, food service, accommodations and personal care sectors. As the Los Angeles region continues to recover from the pandemic, many of those jobs are not coming back, and many of those workers are displaced.

We’re hoping that through this coalition and with our proposed projects, we’re able to stimulate the Goods Movement Ecosystem and the Blue/Green Economy to create and support new and good paying jobs in our region. Furthermore, we are specifically targeting low-moderate income and underrepresented communities and workers to ensure that they have the opportunity to secure these good paying jobs and enter a stable career pathway in this industry.

You’ve personally have been designated as the Regional Economic Competitiveness Officer for LA’s efforts. Elaborate on your collaborations with the coalition partners LAEDC is partnered with, and what now the partners are going to focus on in terms of a programmatic request.

This role of the Regional Economic Competitiveness Officer is focused on facilitating the coordination between the nine core coalition members, 36 additional members partners, and the larger Los Angeles region. All the partners have great ideas and great projects, but we have to be able to unify them into one comprehensive regional strategy so that we can convince the US EDA to invest in the Los Angeles region for the Phase 2 application. For some of the other regions around the nation where their population is not as large and diverse, it might not be such a huge challenge.

For a region as large as Los Angeles County, with over 10 million residents, 88 cities, dozens of governmental agencies, and hundreds of organizations working on economic development projects, it becomes essential for a centralized leader to be able to coordinate the voices and ideas into a comprehensive and cohesive strategy and proposal. That’s my goal. My hope is to be able to work with all our partners and facilitate the presentation of their best ideas to the USEDA so that we have a chance of winning one of the 30 final grants, and be able to bring up to $100 million back to LA so that we can support the growth and transformation of our blue/green economy and our goods movement ecosystem.

With a focus on creating a more robust, equitable, sustainable, and a resilient regional economy, LAEDC is also prioritizing good paying jobs and wealth building entrepreneurship opportunities. How do you and the partners plan to execute?

Entrepreneurship opportunities have always been a part of our DNA in Los Angeles. In the Pathways to Economic Resiliency report, we found that in Los Angeles County, 92% of all companies have less than 20 employees. These are small companies and micro enterprises in various sectors and industries.  At the core of all these small businesses, entrepreneurship. Many of these small companies are dependent on entrepreneurial opportunities. That’s why simulating and growing new industry sectors and clusters could provide these small companies and entrepreneurs new contracting and business  opportunities.

A component of our proposal calls for greening of the goods movement industry.  This also calls for more sustainable practices and technologies to reduce emissions and improve efficiencies within the entire goods movement system. Entrepreneurs and small businesses could provide the needed solutions, secure lucrative contracts, and be part of this entire ecosystem.  Whether it’s zero emission vehicles technology, the future application of hydrogen to the goods movement industry, or kinetic wave technology to produce renewable energy, these will help our region attain a more sustainable and resilient future.

However, we need to acknowledge that entrepreneurial opportunities are often not accessible to our underserved communities. The goal of this grant challenge is to identify ways that we can support and empower our local communities, especially our entrepreneurs of color and women entrepreneurs who have not always had access to these great opportunities. Therefore, working through partners like PledgeLA, AltaSea, LACI, Long Beach Economic Partnership, EECI, Long Beach Accelerator and the LA Venture Association, our coalition are seeking support from the USEDA to enhance the development of entrepreneurship programs and projects and provide underserved communities with the tools and resources they need to succeed.

LA grant proposal prominently includes AltaSea—a job creator, enterprise accelerator, and innovative partner in the ocean exploration value chain. What research is taking place at Alta Sea and the Port of LA that you will be highlighting?

AltaSea has been at the forefront of transforming what the ocean economy can do, not only for the Los Angeles region, but for the nation and potentially the world. Sometimes Angelenos forget the power of the ocean and what that means for us. We are not only talking about goods movement when it comes to port operation at the Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach. Recently there’s been a lot more attention paid to the Ports because of the congestion issue. However, many Angelenos have been saying that this has been an issue for a long time, and we need to make sure that there are investments to maintain and enhance our current operations, so that we are not perpetually facing the same issue year after year.  We believe that AltaSea can help us find solutions to some of these issues that we are facing as a region, especially related to technologies that could improve sustainability, resiliency and efficiency.

Additionally, there are enormous potentials that we have yet to fully realize, including the economic and technological impacts of aquaculture and underwater robotics. With California and Los Angeles being more open to growing seafood products in the ocean, this development could create a sustainable ecosystem for local demand of seafood here in Los Angeles. Growing a selection of seafood products locally could reduce our dependency on international shipping for these ocean products. It also would reduce the transportation costs and the pollution that might be associated with the harvesting and transportation of seafood. Furthermore, the growth of a local aquaculture ecosystem could stimulate the growth of food processing and packaging industries in the LA region as well.

Another potential opportunity for development is underwater robotics. Recently, the oil spill in coastal Southern California made apparent the dire need for underwater surveying and monitoring, and underwater robotic technologies could help us address that very issue.  The same technology could also be utilized to support the monitoring of aquaculture farms, sampling toxicity level during spillage of sewage into the ocean, or surveying terrorist or security risks to our waterways.  We hope that USEDA will support fully support the AltaSea projects so that they can continue to help our region and our nation tackle the challenges we face in goods movement, energy supply, climate change and global food security.

What now must be accomplished in order to submit this proposal by March to secure funding from  the $1 billion Build Back Better Regional Challenge?

It’s a daunting task to submit one single proposal for the Los Angeles County region, where you have so many different voices and great ideas. To be able to summarize that into one seamless application and to compete with 60 other regions with worthy applications is going to be the real challenge. On top of it, we’re not given a lot of time. Unlike some of the regions around the nation where it might be a bit easier to coordinate due to a smaller population, with over 10 million residents, 4,700 square miles, 88 cities and over 100 incorporated regions, it will take time to bring all the voices and stakeholders together and work out the details. The big challenge is the timing and the sheer size of LA.

Address what those joining us at VerdeXchange might experience in terms of opportunities in the Blue/Green innovation Economy?

Through the partnership with VerdeXchange and LAEDC/World Trade Center LA over the past decade, we’ve seen global partners focus more on the role of Los Angeles as an international leader for environmental and sustainability innovations and solutions. With the grant application due in March, our coalition will have time to communicate our collective strategy to grow our Blue Green Economy and the Goods Movement Ecosystem.

VerdeXchange has been the advocate and the voice for many international players that share our vision of addressing environmental concerns while concurrently building a sustainable and growing economy. We’re excited to utilize this grant application as a communications tool to announce our GME strategy, and it works out perfectly that we partner with VerdeXchange and leverage its powerful international platform to convey that message to the global audience.

This article was originally posted on VerdeXchange.

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