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Could Shortening a Lengthy Journey for Flowers Lead LA to an Economic Boom?

By Eric Richardson
Published: Wednesday, November 23, 2011, at 03:40PM
Valentine's Flowers Eric Richardson

Shoppers check out the Valentine's Day selection at shops near the corner of 8th and San Pedro.

On any given morning, Los Angeles' flower district is bustling with trade as florists stock up, event planners seek out the perfect blooms and new inventory arrives from fields around the world.

Few visitors likely realize just how far those flowers have come. While Los Angeles has the nation's largest flower district, the majority of flowers imported to Los Angeles come via a zig-zag route in which they are flown to Miami International Airport and then trucked across the country.

Rerouting those flights to Los Angeles could create big business for a city strapped for jobs and new revenues.

"We're not talking about a couple million bucks," said Mark Chatoff, president of the California Flower Mall. "We're talking in the billions of dollars when you start opening this thing a little bit wider" and include other perishables such as produce.

Getting there involves new cold storage capacity at regional airports, coordination with airlines and incentives that make flights to Los Angeles competitive in terms of price.

The flower industry is willing to make the tradeoff of flying through Miami because the costs involved are so much lower, up to 35 to 40 percent less than a direct flight to Los Angeles according to Chatoff.

"[The importer] can't afford to absorb those costs, so they choose the cheapest route that they can," he explained.

Timely access to customs facilities, cold storage and a spot on a plane is also vital.

"We have to be guaranteed our space on the flight," said Jim Mellano, an executive with the American Florist Exchange, which operates the L.A. Flower Market. "My product can't get bumped because then it sits on the tarmac and it's dead."

While a new cold storage warehouse was recently opened at LAX, the facility's growth potential is limited because of space constraints.

Councilwoman Jan Perry believes the answer is at Ontario International Airport, LAX's city-owned eastern stepchild. On Tuesday she introduced a motion asking the Airport department to report on how it might build the facility into a hub for perishable cargo like flowers.

That could bring fresher, cheaper product to Los Angeles from countries like Colombia, Ecuador and Holland.

To get there, the city has to make up ground that it lost as the flower industry changed from being one based around locally-grown products to one that is dominated by imports.

"California historically has been one of the largest flower growing regions in the world," noted Kent Smith, executive director of the Fashion District Business Improvement District.

Rising prices for land, labor and even water have pushed the change. "You can't compete with what's coming from the international market," said Mellano.

A slow transition left the need for facilities at local airports largely unnoticed. "It's just something that's been below the radar of many people," Smith said. "It's something that has happened gradually."

Chatoff believes that political movement like Perry's motion is essential to getting the situation changed, but notes that Los Angeles will have tough competition.

"Miami has got this down to a science. Houston has just built a huge facility to do the same thing," he said.

In the end, though, the payoff for a direct route is also high.

"That's 54 hours of lifespan that we're losing just by having that point of entry [in Miami]," Chatoff said.


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