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A Struggling City, East Palo Alto, and a Luxury Hotel,
 Four Seasons, Create the Perfect Match
By Kim Vo, San Jose Mercury News, Calif.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

Jan. 29, 2006 - The new Four Seasons hotel in East Palo Alto opens Monday. Call to book a room or massage, and you might talk with Leo Kusuma. After you check in, bell staff -- wearing blue jackets and hats issued by Henrietta Walton -- will show you to your room, where Rodney Davis helped oversee the technology behind the telephone system, plasma television and WiFi Internet access.

Kusuma, Walton and Davis all live in East Palo Alto, in keeping with a city policy that requires redevelopment projects to employ 30 percent local residents. In the past few years, that's pushed the city's unemployment rate below 7 percent, down from 11 percent in early 2003.

Meanwhile, the hotel's estimated $3 million in annual taxes will double the city's tax base; in the early 1990s, the city took in less than $100,000 from sales taxes.

East Palo Altans may not be the targeted guests for the luxury hotel, where rooms start at $325 a night, but the hotel is benefiting the city in ways both concrete and intangible. There are the paychecks, the tax dollars and, for some, the opportunity for not just a job, but a career at a multibillion-dollar, international company.

That's what brought Walton to a Four Seasons job fair, even though she already had two jobs -- as a truck driver and a mentor at the local drug rehabilitation clinic.

"What I heard about Four Seasons is how you grow in the company," she said. "I wanted to see if I could work there and work my way up because, you know, once a truck driver you'll always be a truck driver."

She had a smattering of experience -- she's also worked as a Whole Foods cashier and in accounts receivable for another company -- and she interviewed with seven hotel managers trying to find the right fit. She now works at the hotel's uniform desk, issuing uniforms to employees and taking in the laundry and dry cleaning. The job pays well enough that she was able to quit her other two jobs.

"I hope to be manager soon," she said. In the meantime, she's anticipating her six-month anniversary, when she'll qualify for one of the company's perks: a three-night stay at any other Four Seasons property. She's eyeing the one in Los Angeles and plans to take her fiance, who has also applied for a job here.

In all, East Palo Alto residents submitted 1,300 applications for fewer than 300 hotel jobs, said Marie McKenzie, a city redevelopment manager.

East Palo Alto residents work throughout the 190,000-square-foot hotel, from housekeeping to finance to security to technology, said Tracey Wiese, the hotel's director of human resources.

Kathy "K.O." Odsather, associate director of the hospitality management program at the University of San Francisco, said it's smart business to invest in local residents, who in turn will boost the community where the hotel is located.

"They have an investment that goes way beyond real estate," she said.

Fortune Magazine listed Four Seasons as one of the 100 best companies to work for. On average, a guest room attendant earns $24,671 a year, according to the magazine, and a food and beverage assistant manager earns $44,432. Median earnings in East Palo Alto were about $26,838, according to 2000 census figures.

The new hotel is all warm woods and understated elegance. From the 10th floor, it's easy to spot the trees and the church steeples, along with the newer development that has been transforming this city. Inside those new businesses, residents serve coffee at Starbucks, ring up hammers at Home Depot and help load bookcases at Ikea, which received 2,600 local job applications when it first opened in 2003.

While some in town saw gentrification in the new construction west of the highway -- which replaced mom-and-pop storefronts in an area once known as Whiskey Gulch -- Davis saw opportunity. He had previously worked at high-tech companies but lost his job in the dot-com bust.

"Living here with all the construction going on, seeing the hotel and the law firms, I figured they'd need some I.T.," he said.

To prepare residents for the available jobs, Four Seasons gave the city $100,000 for pre-job training. In addition, the city aggressively publicized the positions, hosted job fairs and coached residents on resume writing and interviewing techniques tailored to the hotel's emphasis on high-end customer service.

Kusuma learned of the jobs from an e-mail circulated by his homeowners association. He had worked for Comcast in San Francisco and figured, even if the hourly pay were the same, he would save gas money by shortening his commute.

Fond of traveling, he thought getting into the hotel business made sense and might be less stressful than his old job. He wouldn't reveal his current pay but said it was better than Comcast, and there were pluses he hadn't expected: to properly describe the Four Season's services to potential customers, he'll be sampling food at the hotel's Quattro restaurant and recently got his first massage, courtesy of the hotel spa.

The staff's paychecks are issued by Sherron Johnson, another East Palo Alto resident. Her job at another hotel had been eliminated, and she was living at a friend's home when she heard about the Four Seasons' jobs. "I happened to luck out," she said.

As unemployment has fallen, the city's coffers have fattened. Last year, the city's sales tax was $2.56 million, up from $98,000 in the early 1990s. Officials are eager for the new dollars Four Seasons will bring. Sales tax from every $34 veal chop Milanese and hotel tax from every $2,410 presidential suite travels a mile down the road to City Hall.

With the extra money, the city might create programs to help kids after school or small businesses trying to grow, said Mayor Ruben Abrica. Seniors and families could use more funding, he said, as could the police department.

"Without money," he said, "it's hard to do."

Contact Kim Vo at or (650) 688-7571.


Copyright (c) 2006, San Jose Mercury News, Calif.

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