Richard Luehrs, president and CEO of the Newport Beach Chamber of Commerce, has been with that organization for 28 years and has seen the growth and development of Newport Beach and its business community close-up and from the inside.
Today the city and its businesses are facing unique challenges, and Luehrs gives his take on several.
He was interviewed by Indy Editor Roger Bloom.
1. What is the biggest change in the Newport Beach business environment you’ve seen since you started at the Chamber?
The biggest change in the Newport Beach business environment has been the general upgrading of businesses and products offered in the community, from J C Penney to Nordstrom, from Holiday inn to Pelican Hill, from the Grinder to Wild Fish. Yes, we still have the more affordable options, but we have added greatly to the upper end.
2. The annual Taste of Newport will begin Sept. 17 and you’re expecting upwards of 50,000 people to attend the three-day fest. How did the Taste of Newport come about?
The Taste of Newport, now in it’s 22nd year, was brought to us by a former restaurateur , Bill Hamilton, who saw plans for the Spectrum Entertainment and Retail Center and asked what the Chamber was doing to help maintain market share for our restaurants here in Newport Beach.
As the county was growing up around us, he wanted to make sure we let people know that Newport Beach was still the dining capital of the county. Years ago if you had a fine dining occasion on your calendar, you were most likely calling Newport Beach for a reservation.
Today there are literally hundreds of alternatives throughout the county, and our job is to make sure we let people know we are still a great place for dinner on any occasion.
Certainly a cultural shift with many new and interesting menu choices have been added. In 1984 there were no sushi bars.
3. What role do you see the Chamber taking in this year’s elections?
The Chamber will take an active role in the upcoming election: encouraging people to get out to vote, first of all, and then to vote for candidates who understand the business perspective. The business perspective being smaller government, less regulation and less intrusion into small business.
The Chamber will review the 10 ballot measures and take positions on them as they relate to business, and we will interview all of the candidates for City Council and endorse those who we think will do the best job for our community.
With California in the worst financial position it has seen in recent history, we may also look to endorse those statewide candidates who can bring about meaningful change to our business climate here in the state now ranked at or near the bottom as a place to do business.
4. What are the Chamber’s priorities for the coming year?
The Chamber’s top priority for the year of course is the local economy. We are trying to assist our members and the greater business community by letting people know about all the “specials” that are offered by our retailers, restaurants or service businesses. We continue to hold or support our special events in hopes that it brings attention to community as a place to shop, dine, stay or recreate. And we will focus efforts on the upcoming election to help business by having government get out of the way!
5. What is your favorite movie? Why?
Action films with some mystery can hold my attention but I can’t say I have a favorite movie. If you ask my family they would probably say that I have seen “The Family Man” more often than any other movie. We do have a family tradition of watching “The Polar Express“ each Christmas season. I may have a harder time this year tying my 17-year-old daughter down to the couch one last time before she goes off to college.
6. The unemployment rate in Orange County hit 9.8 percent in July. What do you think it will take to get that back down?
It has to start back in Washington. The Feds need to bring stabilization to the marketplace. Business needs to have a solid platform upon which to build so the federal government needs to stop creating more regulations, which causes instability and uncertainty. Financial markets need to be restored and credit needs to be available to small business.
In California we need to pass a pared-down budget that avoids new taxes, fees and regulations. We need to suspend the AB32 regulations until we turn the economy around, and we need to rein in spending.
Locally, we have to move forward on those issues that will have a positive impact on our local economy, such as implementing the long overdue way-finding sign program in the city to help our visitors find there way around town, and forgo those projects which will have no or limited impact on our local economy.
7. On the optimistic side, what is the most encouraging sign you see locally on the economy?
The most optimistic sign I see in our local community is our occupancy rates at our hotels have been up for the last couple of months. When occupancy rates are up our restaurants do better, our retailers do better and then the suppliers of those businesses do better. Hopefully, we can sustain this uptick in business past Labor Day, when the local economy takes a dip as visitors go back to school and work.
8. What is something most people don’t know about you?
I shouted the words “It’s choice when you win! Step right in!” more than 50,000 times as a carnival barker on the “Luehrs Ideal Rides” carnival. Ask me about how to set up a Merry-Go-Round or how to win at the “Shoot out the Star” game and I could tell you the secrets.
9. What is the Chamber’s position on the scope and cost of the Civic Center project?
After many discussions and presentations on the plans we have come to not only support but wholeheartedly embrace the project.
One only needs to go to the existing City Hall and spend a few minutes there to recognize the need for a new City Hall. Now go to the Central Library on just about any day and try to find a parking spot and you will soon recognize the need for the parking structure.
We believe that the process has been open and transparent and that the City Council and staff have been diligent in managing costs for a most effective civic center development.
10. What should the city and/or the private sector do to revitalize Mariners Mile?
First of all, I think as a community we need to decide whether or not we need to widen Coast Highway through Mariners Mile. Right now for any redevelopment to occur, property owners will be required to give up a substantial portion of their property for a future widening of the highway.
Due to the topographical constraints on much of the property located on the highway the redevelopment options become constrained. Are we as a community all in favor of a widening that will allow for greater speeds through Mariners Mile? Once that question has been resolved we can then begin the process of redevelopment on both sides of the highway.