PACOIMA – Roberto Barragan stands in the shell of a building, surrounded by dust and dreaming of the future. In his slick-looking suit and polished, leather shoes, he looks out of place at this former pawn shop site on a graffiti-scrawled stretch of Van Nuys Boulevard. The role of the outsider is one he knows well. He has built his career on embracing the opposite. To Barragan, president of the Valley Economic Development Center, this nondescript, concrete building in a part of town long-ignored by planners, developers and entrepreneurs isn’t just a construction site. It’s the key to community revival. Over the past few years, he’s put in countless hours turning this space where people once hocked their possessions into a credit union, which he sees as a base for the community to build upon. AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MORESurfer attacked by shark near Channel Islands calls rescue a ‘Christmas miracle’“Look at the whole block,” he says, loud voice rising above the wail of a fire engine’s siren. “It’s ridiculous. A wanna-be gas station, a place that’s forever a garage sale, empty lot, closed building, closed building and a taqueria we probably don’t really need.” When the credit union opens next year, Barragan hopes it will serve as a catalyst for future development. Would-be entrepreneurs could bank there and put something into that empty lot. Maybe the taqueria could become a sit-down restaurant. Maybe a Starbucks could open in one of the vacancies. Barragan sweeps his arm down the street and envisions what could be. Another man in his position would likely not be here. He’d stay in his comfortable office and send out underlings to walk through the grit. Or he’d focus on safer projects, like opening a chain store in a part of town with more attractive demographics. Or, perhaps, he wouldn’t be in the position at all. Handsome, driven and self-possessed, the 46-year-old has a r sum that could take him far in the corporate world. He wears an imposing ring from Princeton University, where he spent his undergraduate years, and holds an MBA from Cal Berkeley. He’s spent more than 20 years working to bring money into disadvantaged neighborhoods. He sits on the Federal Reserve’s advisory board. VEDC’s 30th Tonight, the Van Nuys-based VEDC will celebrate its 30th anniversary and its sixth year with Barragan at the helm. He assumed command in 2000 after its previous president left under murky circumstances and Barragan is credited with vastly expanding its reach and impact. In the year before he took over, the private, nonprofit group served 1,800 businesses, lent out $3 million and helped create 75 companies and 147 jobs. Last year, it assisted 11,500 companies, provided $13.5 million in loans, helped launch 327 businesses and created 601 jobs. Economic Alliance President Bruce Ackerman, who frequently collaborates with VEDC, gives Barragan much of the credit for those increases. “He took over an organization that was reeling,” Ackerman said. “Roberto came in with his expertise and experience and took it to the premier organization that it is today. He’s really done great things for them.” In 2003, Barragan even took the Valley Economic Development Center out of the Valley, winning a contract to help attract retail businesses into downtown Los Angeles. This drew some criticism, but he argued that the intent was to expand local companies’ influence into downtown. Also, the agency’s success with the project helped it win a similar contract recently to attempt to replicate its results in Panorama City. Barragan started young, an Orange County kid helping out his father with the family landscaping business. He started doing payroll at age 9 and managed a crew of workers by 14. By his teenage years, when most kids are worrying about their geometry homework and how to talk to girls, he’d learned how to run the entire company. Outside looking in Even in his youth, he was an outsider who learned to fit in. In his entire elementary school, there was only one other Mexican-American and only a few dozen in high school. It wasn’t until he arrived in Princeton that he rediscovered his heritage. And he did so in an untraditional way, one that has plotted his path for years. Like many students, he became enamored with the Chicano movement but saw economics as the best way to empower Latinos. He studied under a man named Michael Friedland, who adopted Barragan as his prot g and taught him the nuances of how to revive a flagging business, to counsel an entrepreneur, to rebuild a community. And so the student went on, plunging into development work in disadvantaged communities, starting in West Berkeley, the San Francisco Mission district and South Los Angeles. After the 1994 Northridge Earthquake, he joined VEDC as a consultant and played a key role in helping the agency during rebuilding efforts. Early on, he took a keen interest in Pacoima, a community long overlooked by major developers. “How come disenfranchised communities get the crap?” he said. “I don’t want anything better than anyone else, I just want the same chances the other people have. I just want the same stuff.” Though he knew how to play the game, he never fell into the plastic smile and firm handshake business world. He never took up golf, where so many deals get done as executives tee off. The one time he tried the sport, in fact, he and his friends were asked to leave after running into each others’ carts. Holding on And, in a fashion that sets him apart from many in the development world, Barragan has developed an interest in preserving historic business. While many in the economic development world set their sights on attracting national chains and retail operators, he’s focused heavily on keeping old San Fernando Valley businesses open. In 2002, he worked with the Alliance and the city of San Fernando to keep Oh Boy! Pizza, a 50-year-old frozen foods manufacturer with 162 employees, from closing its doors. More recently, he personally got involved to keep the Sun Valley-based Southwest Mill and Lumber and its 48 employees in business and helped arrange loans to keep the iconic Barone’s Famous Italian Restaurant alive. “Their concern is the small business guy,” said Tom Monteleone, who co-owns the 57-year-old restaurant in Valley Glen. “Not only could we preserve all those jobs, we were able to pick up another 15 people or so. (The money) definitely came in handy.” Focusing on poor neighborhoods rather than playing it safe in wealthier areas can be a risky business. Many MBAs wouldn’t hang around a nonprofit, getting their shoes dirty in Pacoima when they could be raking in big corporate dollars. Preserving an old-time business rather than bringing in a big-name tenant runs counter to the predictable strategy. Barragan considers these all over lunch. He’s fading, tired after a packed morning of meetings, phone calls and projects. A cup of espresso arrives and he adds a huge amount of sugar and downs it like a shot. And soon he’s laughing, back to his old, animated self. “It is counter, isn’t it? And isn’t that great,” he says, grinning. “We don’t want to remake the world, we just want to hold on to what we’ve got.” [email protected] (818) 713-3738160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!