On The Road

BURBANK, CALIF. -- Here's a rarity for urban entrepreneurs: the officials here actually like businesses, particularly growing ones. When Lockheed, the city's largest employer, left town in the early 1990s, taking with it 14,000 aerospace jobs, city officials rolled out incentive programs and loans and streamlined regulations to bolster the city's second-largest source of jobs: the movie and television business.

Burbank's timing was perfect. Entertainment employment was beginning to surge throughout the region. (More than 40,000 jobs have been added in the last two years.)

Although it's virtually adjacent to Hollywood, Burbank is a much less onerous place to do business. Business taxes per employee in Los Angeles average more than $140, compared with less than $20 in Burbank. Perhaps more important for fast-paced entertainment businesses, Burbank can complete a conditional-use permit or zoning change in about one-third the time required by the City of Angels. And its violent-crime rate is less than half that of L.A.

Not surprisingly, Burbank's low-crime, low-cost approach has won adherents at the three big studios in town--Disney, Warner Bros., and NBC's West Coast operations--all of which have big expansion plans. Already the town, which still has a blue-collar feel, boasts more than 1,000 entertainment businesses and more soundstage space than New York City. Its unemployment rate is roughly 3% lower than that of L.A. Local industrial and office vacancy rates, as high as 20% in downtown L.A., are barely in the double digits here. The real problem, says Bob Tague, Burbank's community-development director, is that "we're running out of space."

Burbank's faded old storefronts have given way to lively retail chains and restaurants. Cozy eateries now line San Fernando Road, the main thoroughfare, where burgers and fries once dominated.

Although a lot of the attention given to Burbank has been tied to the big studio expansions, much of the growth, notes Tague, has been among small businesses, the ones that often feel alienated in L.A., New York, and other large entertainment capitals. In those cities large businesses cut nifty deals with local politicians, often leaving the small guys with the bills.

But not in Burbank. Just ask John Bidasio, cofounder of Westwind Media, a fast-growing entertainment business specializing in soundtracks for television, who came from Tulsa in 1964 to become a musician in Hollywood. When he began raising a family and building a business, Bidasio looked for a town that was more like Tulsa than like Hollywood.

"Burbank's always been a dowdy kind of small town, plain vanilla, and I like that," says Bidasio, who started his business here in 1986. Today Westwind, with more than 25 employees, is, like much of Burbank, in an expansive mood. With the encouragement of city officials and with a low-interest loan, Bidasio has set up in an old industrial part of town. The area, which only a decade ago suffered massive vacancy rates, is now crammed full of similar small growth businesses, which account for upwards of 80% of Burbank's job growth.

"Downtown Burbank is still not chichi, but the whole place works," says Bidasio, who hopes success won't spoil it. "This is a fast-paced business, and we have all our major clients nearby. It may not be people's image of Hollywood, but Burbank is really the new Hollywood. And now you can even take clients to lunch here."