Mayor Butts on Inglewood’s One Billion Dollar Federal Transit Investment

James Butts

Recently it was announced that the city of Inglewood would be the recipient of a $1 billion-dollar federal investment for the Inglewood Transit Connector project. In this exclusive VX News interview, Inglewood’s Mayor, James Butts, provides an update on Inglewood's 1.6-mile people mover project. Emphasizing the project's broader impact on the local and regional economy, given multiple international events already booked through 2029, Mayor Butts challenges the miss-perception of who will use mass transit, envisioning Inglewood as a globally attractive sports and entertainment capital. Reflecting on Inglewood's transformative & successful economic recovery, Mayor Butts also shares a vision for the city's 2030 legacy, highlighting generational wealth creation and renewed infrastructure investments.

VX News: Mayor, the news is buzzing with reports of potential federal funding of your 1.6 mile long people-mover project, a longtime priority of yours. We've spoken about it in the past but could you put the significance of this funding into perspective re your goals for your city?

Mayor Butts: We're going to have four international events hosted here in the city of Inglewood in the next four years alone: 8 FIFA World Cup Matches in 2024, Superbowl 61 in 2027, the 2028 Olympic Games, and the NBA All-Star Game Weekend in 2026. This past August, within 12 days, there were six consecutive Taylor Swift concerts; followed 3 days later three Beyonce concerts. In those 12 days, 720,000 people came to Inglewood, a city of a little more than a hundred thousand people. We have the relocated Los Angeles Philharmonic Youth Orchestra Program here, in downtown Inglewood. The Forum is back bigger than ever. YouTube has a opeed 6,000-seat performing arts theater here and, of course, the Clippers Intuit dome opens in August of this year. 9 months ago, Showtime purchased a 10,000 square foot production studio in the north end of town. The Girl Scouts of Greater Los Angeles moved their headquarters from Marina Del Rey in Los Angeles to Inglewood about four years ago. NFL’s Network moved its national media headquarters from Culver City to Inglewood to a 455,000-square-foot building. Inglewood is now truly the City of Champions.

We call the Inglewood Transit Connector; a first-last-mile project because the reality is this: most mass transit systems are situated on the least expensive acquired right of way. In our case, it was the Santa Fe Pacific RailLine. Trains never went to destination cities, but seldom placed stations where masses of people wanted to for entertainment and shopping; again; they went through the least valuable route for goods transfer across the country. We saw another future and we started six years ago, assembling money for this necessary first-last-mile connection. Today, we've assembled 1.9 billion dollars in grants.

Being on Metro’s board for ten years, I’ve been trying to break through the paradigm that mass transit is for people who don't have cars. We want to take the fact that we're now the sports entertainment capital of Southern California, and even greater California, to create a utility that makes people think, “Hey, I want to get on this people mover so I can go and see the entertainment of my dreams without a car.” We feel that this is a seminal project, not just for Inglewood, but for the greater county of Los Angeles.

Mayor, no one's ever accused you of NOT being bold. This transit project potentially asks a lot of your in-place business community because it changes the locus and complexity of your historic downtown. Address how the envisioned transit plaza benefits business incumbents and future vendors & visitors.

I believe downtown is going to benefit from the project. The reality is that when you talk about downtown Market Street, it goes from Florence to Hillcrest. When I came back to Inglewood after leaving for 15 years for Santa Monica as the Assistant General Manager for the airport system, and five years for the City of Los Angeles, downtown Inglewood had died.

This project is going to place a transit plaza between Florence and Market Street, at the mouth of downtown. The reality is that when people come to games, they come two hours early, at a minimum, an hour early. Now they're in a transit plaza, right at the mouth of Market Street so they can walk around on Market Street up until game or concert time, knowing that they're going to be able to get on the transit connector and not worry about traffic to get there. It'll move up to 11,000 people an hour. I believe that this is going to signal a rebirth of Market Street as we’re programming the area to be a mixture of residential, commercial, and entertainment. It’ll have its own indigenous built-in shopping population, as well as the visitor population that comes to see the property, given the Dome hosts around 400 events a year in the city. It makes Market Street a more affordable alternative to the high-end retail in the sports and entertainment district so this is how I see it all fitting together.

While many visitors are coming to the incredible sports and entertainment venues you've helped create, arguably the City of LA receives significant more economic benefits (i.e. Bed Tax) than Inglewood does, because Inglewood still has few hotels. How does Inglewood plan to capture that visitor revenue? Are there current development plans for new hotels?

With something like a 25 million dollar fund balance when we closed the books last year, we're capturing ticket and sales tax revenue already. And because people come in two hours early-- They eat on Market Street and go to our 7/11s to get their snacks because they know it's expensive to eat in the venues. Two hotels are also going up as we speak. One on the Hollywood Park Tomorrow Campus, and another adjacent to the Intuit Dome. We already have a hotel that was built on Imperial and Prairie, which is open. There is another planned for Prairie and 109th, and another where the old Tradewinds was on Freeman and Century. So that's four existing or planned hotels.

Here's the thing. We need to get out of this zero-sum game with the “we win you lose” mentality. The reality is that I would like to have a communication network with all the South Bay cities that lets hotels know when these events are coming to the city, so we can all come up together. We're having a State of the City economic summit on June 28th, 2024 which I am co-hosting with Steve Ballmer with special guests consisting of Mayor of Los Angeles, the County’s Board of Supervisors, and the Mayors of the South Bay cities. We’re hosting this event to discuss how we get out of this paradigm– we have these artificial lines drawn on the maps

and the county as if they mean anything. When it comes to economic prosperity, we need to learn to share.

A very responsive and an eloquent answer. To follow up: Will the development you note likely be completed before the 2028 Olympic Games? Or will the construction potentially impede visitor access to the games?

Here’s the solution: whenever you have a major event, you shut down construction for that period, and you use the roads just as you always had. What you can't do is miss a once-in-a- lifetime opportunity.

What city of nine square miles have you ever heard of in this country that’s close to $2 billion in grants for a seminal project? You've never heard of it? That's unfortunate. Maybe the timing won't be just right, but the timing for progress is always on time.

Excellent answer. But to better inform our readers, share how you expect to find the rest of the needed funds and how you maintenance of the system will be financed?

Here’s the thing, David. The more you get, the more you get. That's the best thing I could tell you. We’re working on the final $200 million as we speak.

When I came back to Inglewood we'd lost the Kings and the Lakers. The racetrack was down to 1000 people a day, the Forum belonged to a church and they were about to be foreclosed on. Then piece by piece, we started putting things together, and the next thing you know, we’re close to $2 billion. People ask me how we are going to get the other $200 million dollars? I'm not worried about it. There are grants and financing strategies out there, and there’s no project that is more relevant to our region than this one. I think that people believe that we have the capacity to make it happen.

In one of VX News’ earlier interviews when we were reading stories about economic growth of Silicon Beach, you shared that Inglewood was part of Silicon Beach
How are you advancing this economic regional interconnectedness?

You said one good example right there. You said we don't have hotels, although we plan to have hotels. The reality is when you talk about 400 events a year, the four or five hotels that we're going to build here are not going to be sufficient for the capacity. We want to develop connectivity. We make maps using these artificial lines-- this is Inglewood, this is Culver City, this is Manhattan Beach, etc. But people are not necessarily thinking about those artificial boundaries.

We want to make this a single homogeneous economic engine. We're not trying to capture every dollar. We do want to get a sufficient amount of revenue to compensate our residents for the inconvenience of tourism so we look to preload our money for the infrastructure impacts in the city.

We want to work cooperatively and I’ll tell you, my compatriots have worked cooperatively. They did it because they believed in me. We're not going to be selfish. We want to do this as one big team. We do want to be an incubator for AI Technology as well.

Do local governments today, without redevelopment agencies, have the necessary tools and discretionary resources needed to accelerate local economic growth? When the California tax structure favors the state over localities, what incentives do our cities have to work collaboratively within a region?

Now you’re talking about a personal thing. In the United States of America, politics is the system that decides the distribution of resources, particularly government tax resources. It’s the cornerstone of American Democracy. I've been able to work with my peers and compatriots to help them see the big vision that generates win-wins for all of us.

We didn't have professional football in this region for 21 years, so nobody got anything. Now, the Super Bowl estimations revealed that 50% of the $475 million impact on the greater economy will take place in the county. This is over the two weeks of the Super Bowl, starting a week before and closing out a week after. It’s been proven that if you have major entertainment attractions, the ancillary economic benefit will follow. That’s why I’m making sure to work collaboratively so everybody wins.

Jump to 2030 and look back on what’s been accomplished during your tenure as Mayor of Inglewood. What will be your 20-year legacy looking back from 2030?

So, here's what we used to have: Triple B MINUS-bond ratings for outstanding bonds (Junk rated), our credit rating was suspended so we could not bond for new projects, a 17.5% unemployment rate, a high crime rate, and rock bottom property values.

Now, we have a situation where our long-term residents have amassed generational wealth through their homes. Unemployment rates have dropped from 17.5% to as low as 4.7%, probably hovering just under 5%. Right now, we have the lowest unemployment rate for any minority-majority city in the United States of America. We've done countless infrastructure renewals over the last 10 years. That is unheard of in any city.

It used to be when you left Inglewood to go to Los Angeles, you were going because the streets were better– now it's the opposite. You know when you're coming into Inglewood because the streets are new and redone.

We have around 19,000 trees in our city. We used to trim about 700 trees a year which meant you'd get yours trimmed every 20 years if you were lucky. Now we trim about 6000 trees a year and every tree in the city gets retrimmed every three years. Most people, when they think about a city's topography, don’t think about trees. Yet, we’ve changed the ambiance of the city. When you see how the trees are nicely trimmed, the sidewalks are completed, and the streets are paved well, the big legacy from this time is that Inglewood became a top-tier city. Top-tier in terms of public services as well as opportunities for our residents.

We even have a hard-to-hire program that says that even if you’ve been convicted of a felony, an employer cannot refuse to hire based on that. We've had formerly convicted felons make between 60 to 90 dollars an hour, working with the electrical trades and as ironworkers. More importantly, they've jumped from project to project; AND NOW they have the skills and ability to go on and be able to take care of their families. That's the legacy. We've always been equal ostensibly under civil rights law, but now we've provided equity here in the city of Inglewood.

Finally, in closing.... LA World Airport is now spending $30 billion on an LAX infrastructure investment. How does that investment advantage Inglewood and vice versa?

Think about this: One of the airport projects is a people mover to go from the central terminal area out to the consolidated rental car facility. It's right there on Aviation near 99th. At that consolidated rental car facility is a K-line stop. The K-line heads northeast and will take you right to the Inglewood Transit Connector.

I like to call it a Supertrain because if you wanted, you could fly into LAX, get on the people mover, take it where the K line stops, get on the K line, take it to the super train, and go to your game or concert. You’d never get in a car. You could finish your event, get back on the train, and now you're back to the K line going back to the airport. We hope you stay, frequent our restaurants, businesses and hotels, and you will be able to do that all without a car- that's unheard of in car-dependent Southern California! We're talking about this capacity for travel existing for 400 events a year.

“... [We’ve] changed the ambiance of the city. Our unemployment rate has been cut from 17.5% to less than 5%. Our legacy is the improved infrastructure. Look at how our trees are nicely trimmed, the sidewalks are renewed, and the streets are resurfaced. This was the decade that Inglewood became a top-tier city ... in terms of public services as well as opportunities for our residents.” - Mayor Butts