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The little city of Carson has slowly moved past the day when motoring Angelenos, taking a leisurely drive south to seaside attractions in San Pedro, Long Beach or Palos Verdes, would cruise past the sleepy bedroom community often associated with smelly refineries, abandoned oil fields and early strip malls. The Goodyear blimp, hovering over its landing field, was one of the few points of distinction.

Located about 13 miles south of Downtown Los Angeles, Carson was just a fleeting glance at 65 miles-per-hour along the Harbor Freeway; no high-rise buildings to speak of, no amusements to pique the interest, nothing memorable besides car dealerships to make the curious exit the 110 on one of the city’s few off-ramps.

Today, Carson is poised to become one of the Southland’s significant destinations for residents, corporations and visitors alike. Following the re-election of Mayor Jim Dear and realignment of the City Council, a number of new construction projects have been completed in Carson, most notably the ultra-modern Renaissance at City Center, a mixed-use development of residential units and retail outlets at the corner of Avalon Boulevard and Carson Street.

“I received a mandate from the people to continue progress in Carson,” Dear said. “I want to transform Carson into a destination community. For years people would just drive past the city on the freeway and not stop. Now we have some of the most appealing attractions in the South Bay region. Take restaurants for example. When I was first elected we had a 17-year hiatus on restaurant openings. Now we offer just about every type of cuisine to the varied cultures which make up greater L.A. We plan on continuing this vein of transforming Carson in Southern California’s premier locale for dining.”

Construction is ongoing at the Boulevards Outlets at the 405 Freeway and Avalon Boulevard. Calling for a potential mix of nearly 1.9 million square feet of commercial, retail and entertainment space to include a 300-room hotel and up to 1,550 residential and/or multifamily units, the Boulevards Outlets will offer more than 500,000 square feet of retail stores.

Because the Carson landscape has sometimes been synonymous with landfills, approval for construction at The Boulevards had to be obtained from the state Department of Toxic Substance Control. Therefore, a landfill gas collection system is being installed over the site to collect any residual fumes that may be released during construction.

City officials tout The Boulevards development as a job creator, adding as much as 4,500 construction jobs and more than 5,000 permanent jobs. Upon completion, the project could increase the Carson general fund by more than $5 million annually in sales, hotel fees and property taxes. Carson residents are not expected to pay for this development because no money from the general fund is anticipated to be used.

The South Bay Pavilion (formerly the Carson Mall) on Avalon Boulevard is undergoing refurbishment with the addition of movie theaters; Millennium High School on the property will be relocated as will the Chuck E. Cheese restaurant and the Old Navy store to make way for the theater complex.

By virtue of L.A.’s unofficial title as the “car capital of the world,” the automobile industry has for decades looked to the South Bay region as inspiration for the most cutting-edge ideas in design and engineering technology. The Porsche Experience Driving Center, also occupying a landfill near the junction of the 405 and 110 freeways, is not a race track. Instead, the facility serves as a driver-training center with two handling courses, an acceleration/deceleration area, an off-road course, an ice/low-friction course, and related auto repair activities.

Wal-Mart is moving into Carson. The retail giant’s new Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market is replacing Bestway Market at 20220 Avalon Blvd. and will feature interior upgrades to the 20,900 square-foot facility, as well as an enhanced loading/service bay.

“We tightened our belts during the recession,” said councilwoman Lula Davis-Holmes. “We have a good team of councilmembers, staff and employees who determined that if it’s not a necessity, it should be eliminated. We maintained and increased our budget surplus by not filling any vacancies. The staff here came to our rescue in a collaborative effort. These decisions did not simply come from the top. Everyone was brought into the concept.”

Carson, incorporated in 1968, occupies a unique place among South Bay municipalities, with a budget surplus estimated at $29.6 million for fiscal year 2011-12. This compares with nearby Long Beach which was mired in a $17.2 million deficit; neighboring Torrance, despite an expected shortfall this year, has a balanced budget. Compton, which borders Carson on the northeast, by the start of the fiscal year 2011-12 saw its perennial deficit swell to $41 million. Los Angeles has one of the nation’s largest budget shortfalls, once projected at $251 million. Carson’s general fund decreased 13 percent during fiscal year 2009-10 from $20 million to $18.2 million, but rebounded two years later to the present figure.

“We never got below 25 percent in reserve funds,” said Jackie Acosta of the Carson treasurer’s office. “We have some budget gaps to close this year, and we will address these to make sure the city remains fiscally sound.”

Carson is the only South Bay city with no utility user tax (electricity, gas, sanitation, etc.). By comparison, about one-third of Compton’s general fund comes from utility taxes. Carson has the lowest development and planning fees and the second lowest business license fee ($2,000) behind Compton at $3,000. El Segundo leads metropolitan Los Angeles with a $13,000 business license fee.

Sales and property taxes are Carson’s prime sources of revenue, combining for $36.4 million for fiscal year 2011-12. Like most Southland cities, the Carson housing market is struggling to rebound from the recession. The yearly turnover rate for home sales/purchases is 14.6 percent, while 47.5 percent of homeowners have resided in their present location for five or more years. The median home price in Carson is $275,000.

The majority of small businesses in Carson are oriented to take advantage of the South Bay’s “Golden Triangle,” or, the general proximity of the Los Angeles and Long Beach harbors, the Alameda Corridor and LAX. Wholesale distribution, manufacturing and transportation are the city’s three most common industries employing an average of 22.1 persons per small business.

A 2008 survey measuring the impact of small business owners found the average merchant had operated for 12.5 years. About 48 percent of respondents said the gross income of their business the previous year was just above $500,000, serving a majority of customers (73.6 percent) from outside of the city. Respondents split at 48.9 percent each as to whether or not they would expand their operation in the near future.

Carson has a storied history within its 18.7 square miles. It traces to the 1770s when a Spanish soldier, Juan Jose Dominguez (originally a member of the fabled Portola expedition to the New World), accompanied Father Junipero Serra and fellow Franciscan missionaries to provide security in the still unexplored region of the California territory. Upon Dominguez’s retirement from the military in 1784, California’s first governor, Luis Antonio Arguello, awarded him with the state’s first land grant—about 75,000 acres stretching from the Los Angeles River to the ocean—encompassing what is today the cities of Carson, Torrance, Redondo Beach, Lomita, Wilmington and parts of San Pedro.

By the 1920s, the petroleum industry had established itself in the region and remains a critical source of income. The first oil rig at Dominguez Hill began pumping “sweet” crude in 1921; two years later the Burnham Exploration Co. and Union Oil of California began in earnest the petroleum industry in Carson. Early oil leases with Shell Oil Co. and Union Oil produced the first two modern wells operating just west of Central Avenue and north of Victoria Street (near present-day California State University, Dominguez Hills). Before long, a number of refineries were operating more than 350 oil derricks, tank farms and sprawling industrial complexes.

After World War II, jobs in the petroleum industry led to a population surge attracting thousands of workers to Southern California. An average of 1,200 barrels of oil per day was recovered in Carson through the late 1960s when the city became the South Bay’s newest municipality.

Carson has grown from 61,000 residents in 1968 to in excess of 93,000 by 2013, and it has placed among the top 20 highest valued cities in the county, according to an annual report from the County assessor’s office. In 2011, Carson ranked 10th highest in the county in terms of assessed value (secured and unsecured properties).

Regarding the budget surplus, Dear confided: “People do ask ‘how do you do it?’ We employ a fiscally conservative policy of never spending more than we take in. That has paid off. Our revenue streams increase because of fiscal discipline. Auto sales have traditionally been a successful source of income for the city. Car Pros Kia is a good example. They’re the No. 1 Kia dealership in Southern California.”

By the 1980s, however, residents and visitors to Carson voiced concerns about the noxious smell emanating from the refineries and abandoned tank farms . . . some of the latter fashioned into new neighborhoods but later revealed to be inadequately mitigated and monitored. Shell Oil Co. in 2011 was ordered by the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board to clean up the Carousel housing tract after benzene and methane gas contamination was discovered, as well as soil and groundwater contamination.

Today, Shell Oil, Phillips 66 and BP West Coast have oil refineries in Carson. Other major corporations operating in the city include Northrop Grumman, Nissan Motors Corp., Volvo Car Corp., Mercedes-Benz of North America, TRW, Sony Electronics, General Mills, Pepsi Beverages Co., and See’s Candies. The aforementioned Goodyear Blimp, still moored in Carson, is seen frequently at local outdoor sports venues. Carson actually hosted the first and second International Aviation Meets at Dominguez Hill Rancho in 1911 and 1912.

The Carson population is 38.6 percent Hispanic; 25.6 percent Asian; 23.8 percent White, 23.8 percent African American and 18.7 percent Pacific Islander. Almost all residents live in single-family homes, townhomes or apartment units; 81.5 percent of all households comprise 3.9 persons each. Carson is intersected by four major freeways and about 400,000 cars travel daily through the city limits.

California State University, Dominguez hills, originally called South Bay State College in Palos Verdes, was established by Gov. Edmund G. “Pat” Brown in the wake of the 1965 Watts Riots. It is largely a commuter college occupying 346 acres and conceived originally to serve the thousands of African American youth from the surrounding cities of Long Beach, Compton and Gardena. Today there are 13,899 students enrolled, of which 79.6 percent are undergraduate. Upgrades at the campus include the use of proposed citywide bicycle lanes, some of which will lead into the campus. “We are interested in making our campus community greener,” said Carlos Valez, campus chief of police. “We are looking at different ways to get people out of their vehicles. We want to see what we can do to encourage and provide our input so we can be a part of the map as a destination.”

Years before young Southland Black professionals began moving to locales like Moreno Valley, Chino, Lancaster or Palmdale, Carson attracted these upwardly mobile families to its many cul-de-sacs and split-level homes. These Black households have since established a foothold in Carson’s social advancement, spanning from city government to education to main street merchants.