There are two main routes into the lobby of the Oakland Marriott hotel. The front entrance lures you in from the bustling thoroughfare of Broadway, where crisply attired bellhops wait to open your limousine door, and signs of a resurgent Oakland are all around you. But the view from a side entrance tells a different story; at the corner of 10th and Washington, empty storefronts locked behind security gates bake under the sun.
On the morning of March 20, the most prominent members of Oakland's business establishment arrived at the Marriott's Jewett Ballroom to nibble on bagels and omelets, and to listen to one man assure them that the city is finally poised to put dismal scenes like the one at 10th and Washington behind it forever. The man was Robert Bobb, the city manager and the person charged with taking Mayor Jerry Brown's often ethereal, aphoristic visions and transforming them into something tangible. More than anyone else in town, the buck stops with him, as local leaders strive to finally deliver to Oakland the prosperity that has eluded it for so long. At this Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce "power breakfast," Bobb's theme was summed up by the slogan flashing on the screens behind the podium: "Oakland -- a city on the move!"
As the army of suits settled in beneath a firmament of chandeliers, Robert Wilkins, the president of the YMCA of the East Bay and an ordained minister, set the proceeding in context. "In the ancient book of the Hebrews, in the writings of Nehemiah," he began, "it is recorded that after the Hebrews spent a number of years in exile, a group of men came to see Nehemiah. He asked them how things were going in Jerusalem, and they said to him, 'Things are not going well. Our brothers and sisters are suffering, because the gates of Jerusalem have been burned. The walls lie in ruins, and the temple has been destroyed.' And that moved Nehemiah substantially, and he went to Cyrus, the king of Persia, and asked him, 'Can I go back and begin a redevelopment project in the city of my fathers?' Cyrus allowed him to do so, and he went back and said, 'Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace.'
"And the scripture says that each person according to their own skills took a part of the project, and they worked shoulder to shoulder. Along the way, others in nearby cities looked at them and ridiculed them, saying, 'Those people, the Hebrews, they don't know how to build anything. It'll fall down.' Many in other cities resented them and said, 'How dare they seek to build up their city, and take their place among the greats like us?' But they kept the faith and continued to build, and the scripture says that they worked and they worked, and the wall was rebuilt, because the people had a mind and a heart to work."
As the waiters began to hand out plates of hot food, and a chamber representative read from a schedule of upcoming events, the air hummed with the sound of fingers on the keys of Palm Pilots and laptops. Bobb sat beside the podium, glancing down at his notes while the emcee dispensed with a few rituals of civic boosterism: New businesses were acknowledged and applauded, the annual holiday parade was cheered, and an oversized check for $25,000 was presented to Children's Hospital. Finally, it was time for Bobb to address the assembly, to sell the idea of a successful Oakland to its own movers and shakers. Bobb can speak quite passionately when the occasion calls for it, but today's presentation sounded more like an annual shareholders' report -- filled with numbers, spreadsheets, and an aura of inevitability. "Oakland is engaged in an economic resurgence, and we see that resurgence continuing," he boasted. "We may not have as much money as many of our sister cities around the Bay Area, but no one can outhustle us. Wherever there is a deal to be made, we will go there."
Bobb's benchmarks for the city's new prosperity were impressive: three hundred new companies, many emphasizing biotech, transportation, and food processing; a fifteen percent rise in income since 1995; and 10,000 new jobs -- a growth rate of six percent, twice that of the nation's average. As the attendees dusted off their home fries, Bobb introduced his redevelopment dream team: Bill Claggett, Leslie Gould, and Calvin Wong -- people who, Bobb promised, will work day and night to make your business flourish -- or seize it if it is blighted. Together, these men and women and their colleagues are responsible for nearly sixty major development projects, a stark contrast from four years ago, when the city had only eight projects in the pipeline.
There's nothing Oakland won't do to help your business, Bobb promised. Its One-Stop Capital Shop will offer small businesses start-up loans; its brownfield campaign will leverage EPA money to clean up old industrial sites; its port is about to embark on a $3 billion expansion of its airport and maritime operations; and its population is the eighth most educated in the country. It's even willing to go head-to-head with San Francisco; a new media campaign in the Chronicle, Mercury News, and Wall Street Journal mocks the West Bay's high rents as it tries to lure businesses to the east side of the Bay Bridge.
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