Bixby Knolls businesses strive to continue resurgence through ‘unconventional’ ways

Photos by Sean Belk/Signal Tribune<br><strong> Ernie Henson, owner and sommelier of Willmore Wine Bar, which opened at 3848 Atlantic Ave. in August of last year, is one of the newest businesses in Bixby Knolls.</strong>
Sean Belk
Staff Writer

Despite continued economic struggles and some storefronts remaining empty, new businesses have cropped up in Bixby Knolls in the past year, drawn by a recently revived interest in the business corridor along Long Beach Boulevard and Atlantic Avenue.
“I’ve heard a lot of good things and that a lot of events go on in this area,” said Michele Williams, owner of Beachcrafters, which opened in December, offering space for local artists to sell handmade crafts on a split sales commission. “Everybody has been very friendly and welcoming… It’s a nice area to be in.”
Almost 80 new businesses opened in Bixby Knolls in 2012, and one to three new restaurants are expected to open up later this year, according to a list of new businesses provided by the Bixby Knolls Business Improvement Association (BKBIA). The nonprofit organization, governed by a board of directors, receives funding to promote and enhance the corridor by the City assessing an annual fee on retail, service and professional businesses.
Recent attraction to the strip, encircled by a 120-acre neighborhood of historic homes between Bixby Road and San Antonio Drive, has developed somewhat organically, said Blair Cohn, BKBIA’s executive director. “In this down economy, this district is trying new things that are outside the box, using unconventional ways of drawing attention to the area to try to drive the local economy,” he said.
<strong>Willmore Wine Bar, located at 3848 Atlantic Ave., open from noon to 9pm, has become a new attraction in Bixby Knolls. </strong>
For instance, in March of last year, when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art pulled a 340-ton boulder through the district on its way to being a “Levitated Mass” art exhibit, the BKBIA used the circumstance as a chance to organize a “block party.” Businesses are now looking to put on regular block parties, where four to five businesses will stay open past their regular hours, he said.
In addition, after Nino’s Italian Restaurant underwent renovations from being on British celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay’s television series Kitchen Nightmares last year, other restaurants are following suit and making similar improvements, Cohn said.
“There has been no shortage of new opportunities coming our way that we can capitalize on,” he said. “We have to keep being creative and think of new ways to get people out and get folks to shop, dine, work and play in Bixby Knolls.”
Attention has also been spurred by many of the BKBIA’s ongoing events, aimed at creating a more “inclusive” atmosphere while introducing customers to local shops, Cohn said. First Fridays, which began nearly seven years ago, has become a signature event in Bixby Knolls and now involves nearly 15 businesses, providing artists and musicians with venues to showcase their work on the first Friday of each month. BKBIA has also organized “cash mobs” where a group of people gathers to shop at a local business.
In May of last year, the BKBIA sponsored its first Kidical Mass event, a bike ride for kids and their families, which got started in Eugene, Oregon in 2008. The event has now become a regular event in Bixby Knolls. “It was such a success the first time, we thought, ‘Why don’t we just continue the momentum?’” Cohn said. This year, Kidical Mass rides are scheduled for Jan. 20, Feb. 17, March 17 and April 21. All rides start at 1pm and leave from Georgie’s Place at 3850 Atlantic Ave.
Cohn said the BKBIA focuses on “national movements” that cities across the country are taking part in to spur business development. Also new this year, he said, is a twist on Concerts in the Park– “Concerts in the Parking Lot,” which provide entertainment outside of restaurants as people eat.
<strong>Michele Williams opened Beachcrafters in December, offering space for local artists to sell handmade crafts on a split sales commission. The business is one of many that have recently opened up in Bixby Knolls in the last year.</strong>
“All these events are great and inclusive, but they’re also smoke and mirrors for supporting a business,” Cohn said. “It’s very important, in this economy, to work very close with all of the business owners and try to see how we can meet their needs and how we can keep promoting the area.”
Another recent addition to Bixby Knolls is Willmore Wine Bar, which opened in August of last year at 3848 Atlantic Ave. Ernie Henson, owner and sommelier, said he decided to open the bar after working as wine director for the Virginia Country Club for the last nine years. Henson said moving to Bixby Knolls “fell into place,” and club members in the immediate area have pledged their support and have since followed through. The wine bar has since collaborated with local clothing shops and helps restaurants attract customers, he said. “People come in here for a glass and move on, or afterwards people come in here to finish off a glass,” Henson said.
Growth in Bixby Knolls has also spread to nearby areas. Blackbird Café at 3405 Orange Ave. in the California Heights district opened in 2011 and has since attracted a “great following,” said Debbie Rossetti-Colacion, owner of the eatery that serves breakfast and lunch. She said the restaurant that “caters to a lot of different palates” recently received its beer and wine license from the City and continues to switch up its menu.
Though new businesses are coming in, some have left or are in the midst of leaving.
Roy Robbins, owner of a gift and stationery shop at 4244 Atlantic Ave. for more than three years in Bixby Knolls, announced he is officially closing his doors on Feb. 15. Even though it’s been tough to make a profit for many businesses in the current economic climate, he said his decision to close was not primarily due to lack of sales, adding that it was a personal decision after being in the business for many years. In fact, he said, his competition has grown. There are now five other gift shops along Atlantic Avenue, while just a few years ago his store was the only one, Robbins said.
“I’m really thrilled to see how this street has come back to life and how Bixby Knolls has transitioned into the kind of neighborhood it was years ago,” he said. “It’s been really nice to be a part of the resurgence in this neighborhood.”
Though Bixby Knolls has attracted a “diverse” population and assortment of businesses, the district is still “restaurant deficient,” lacks night life and struggles to draw customers from outside of the neighborhood, he said.
“Even though the neighborhood is much more diverse than it used to be, it’s still sort of the same neighborhood as it was when I was a kid,” Robbins said. “I think if you have something that’s a little edgier we will have people coming from outside the area.”
Cohn said the big challenge is continuing the momentum with less funding to go around, particularly with City resources being slashed and after the State shut down redevelopment agencies (RDAs). Even though the State has approved a 10-year contract to provide the BKBIA with $200,000 of former RDA funds annually, community members will have to support local businesses even more these days, whether through grant funds, nonprofit community groups or patronage, he said.
<strong>According to a list of new businesses provided by the Bixby Knolls Business Improvement Association, more than 80 new businesses opened in that shopping district in 2012, and one to three new restaurants are expected to open up later this year</strong>
“You can’t just have everybody turn in their wish-list and think that City Hall is going to be short-order cooks… it’s going to take people on the grass-roots level to continue some momentum, build some things and then get the City support,” Cohn said. “The private-public partnership is not going to be the future… It’s the way they’re doing it now.”

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