David Matthews forms a important business
By Gary Luster
Normally a city’s chamber of commerce busies itself with advocating on behalf of its member businesses by helping them make contacts with each other, acquire customer referrals, and provide other opportunities in networking. But what if those same businesses have other ideas for how the chamber should operate such as in making the streets safer for businesses to do business.
That was the situation that David Matthews faced when he became president of the Harbor Gateway Chamber of Commerce (HGCC) three years ago.
Prior to becoming president, Matthews was in charge of the Gardena Boulevard Business Alliance, an organization that morphed into the current HGCC.
It was during this time that Matthews spearheaded the physical cleanup of Gardena Boulevard as ridding the area of crime from local gangs through a partnership with Gardena Police Department and the Los Angeles Police Department.
“Once we got Gardena Boulevard cleaned up and we started to see change and the safety that resulted, the businesses said, ‘Why don’t we just create a chamber of commerce?’ Matthews said. “At that point I didn’t really know what a chamber did so I said ‘Let’s research and figure out what it is.’ and that is how the chamber was born.’”
With the chamber up and running and a mission to make the streets safe for local businesses and their customers, he got to work building and maintaining relationships with local law enforcement.
Matthews communicates at least once a day with all law enforcement agencies in his chamber’s areas. He works with CHP, getting four hours of patrol from them per week. He also works closely with Compton, Century and South Los Angeles County Sheriffs as well as with Gardena Police and the Southeast and Harbor Divisions of the LAPD.
“As a chamber we promised the members that we would deliver clean, safe streets and that’s what we have done and continue to do,” Matthews said. “That is our primary focus.”
In addition to crime, Matthews and the HGCC tackled another issue after the chamber’s creation: homelessness.
Three years ago, the four-acre vacant lot located at Redondo Beach Boulevard and Vermont Avenue was the spot of Gardena’s largest homeless encampment with more than 100 people living there.
This caused several problems not the least of which was a spike in crime in the area, especially at the nearby Rosecrans Park.
“I knew we had to get the homeless encampment [issue] solved so that we could protect the kids in that park,” he said.
Matthews went to the neighborhood council and asked them what was going on with the vacant property. He knew that nu- merous assaults and drug deals were occurring including a child who had bought drugs there, overdosed at the park and then died on the street. The council told him to stay away from that lot because of ongoing litigation.
Matthews complied with that request long enough for him to do some research, which is how he found out that the lot was owned by a private individual in Texas.
He contacted this person who told Matthews what individual or group that held the master lease and who the current leaseholder was.
Matthews then pulled together all the agencies with whom he had built relationships, including CalTrans so they could clean up that lot.
It took about six months to clean the lot, get people housed, and get people jobs. It was this experience that helped Matthews learn about the state of local homeless outreach services.
One of the things that Matthews learned while working with local businesses was the extent of the homeless situation in the Gardena area.
“Three years ago, Figueroa had 284 RVs lining the streets so the first thing we did was we went to the city and asked what the options were to stop the crime and stop the problematic conditions that are impacting our only business corridor,” Matthews said.
The city told him that he could start a petition with all of the local businesses to ban street parking as a way to end the RV situation.
Matthews then went door-to- door for four months to get all the businesses to agree to a ban on street parking. The businesses then had to figure out how to solve the parking issues for their employees, so businesses would share parking with some businesses paying for parking. Matthews said that the HGCC and the local businesses made sure not to force the RVs into the unincorporated area.
During the HGCC’s first year, they worked with St. Joseph Center, a social services agency in nearby Venice to take 17 families out of the RVs and into hotels until permanent housing was secured for them.
Matthews and the HGCC continues to offer assistance to the homeless thanks to a map of the homeless that is in his office that shows the RVs in the unincorporated areas so that he knows who the homeless are and if they get displaced, he knows where they go because they search for them. Then they let their case workers know where their clients are.
To bolster their efforts in tackling the homeless situation, Matthews has been working with Los Angeles County Supervisor Holly Mitchell’s office for the past 18 months and with the result being a just-announced pilot program that will connect 1500 people living in RVs to permanent housing.
In addition to crime and the homeless, Matthews and the HGCC have been addressing the cleanup of the city.
“When I first started the chamber I came up with a community ambassador program where we went to all the waste management companies asking them to donate a dumpster on a Saturday to let us go in and clean the areas,” he said. “The first area we cleaned up was near 135th Street Elementary. Through community volunteers we have taken 400 tons of garbage off the street with- out the help of the city or county.”
The following week Matthews and the HGCC did cleanup starting at Rosecrans Park and working their way north and starting on the first Saturday of every month, they will be out there with a group of children at 8 a.m. cleaning up the local neighborhoods.
They will also planned to work with the LA County Sheriff’s week along 157th Street between Broadway and Figueroa and also between Main and Alondra. The plan was to also do cleanup at the Department of Public Services Building near the 105 Freeway and Western Avenue.
“You can’t just sit back and talk about what you’re going to do,” Matthews said. “You’ve gotta just do it.”
The North Harbor Gateway community is a residential and industrial neighborhood in Los Angeles that shares boundaries with the city of Gardena to the west and the unincorporated areas of east Gardena, Compton, Willowbrook, and Carson to the east.
For more information on the Harbor Gateway Chamber of Commerce, including information on how to become a member, call Fabiola Robles at 310-995-2503 or send an email to info@thehgcc. com.