It may not have the waterfront or the same attractions as Belmont Shore’s Second Street or the downtown area, but neighborhood-centric Bixby Knolls has come into its own as a prime business district in Long Beach, said community leaders and city officials last week.
Major façade improvements and buzz-worthy events, such as the monthly First Fridays Art Walk, have revived the corridor along Atlantic Avenue and Long Beach Boulevard, with businesses clamoring to get in on the action, said Blair Cohn, executive director of the Bixby Knolls Business Improvement Association (BKBIA), during the association’s annual State of the District on Thursday, Feb. 20. And there’s still more to come, he said.
“We want to make sure when people say ‘Bixby Knolls’ that comes with an immediate vision and a brand in mind,” Cohn said before a large crowd of business owners and residents at the Long Beach Petroleum Club at 3636 Linden Ave.
During the event, attendees dined on pizza and desserts provided by Bixby Knolls businesses. The occasion also included an opportunity drawing as well as a ceremony in which community leaders and businesses were recognized with awards.
Also in attendance were 8th District Councilmember Al Austin and 7th District Councilmember James Johnson, who both shared words of encouragement. Austin said the business district is in “better shape than it was a year ago” while Johnson announced plans to invest $200,000 in projects in his district.
After giving a five-year review of achievements during the same event last year, the BKBIA has since been working on “housekeeping,” researching and reorganizing, Cohn said.
“We were very happy with what we’d seen after five years,” he said. “But it’s kind of like, ‘What are we going to do now, and where do we go next?’”
This year the association plans to launch four new websites: an updated site for the BKBIA and brand new sites for First Fridays, the Expo Arts Center and the Council of Business Associations (COBA). The plan is also to continue using social media in hopes of boosting electronic communication between businesses and the public.
The association is also planning to roll out a new monthly event called Marketing Mondays, in which businesses will be able to discuss “best practices” for attracting customers and business to the area, he said.
As part of an effort to “brand” the district, Cohn shared an online video produced by the BKBIA and Digital Revolution called “Rediscover Bixby Knolls,” which he said “tells the story” of the area by highlighting businesses and events.
“This last year, there’s been no shortage of people wanting to open a business,” Cohn said, adding that there has been interest in office space, professional services and retail. “We want to make sure it’s as clean as it is, offering things that keep it interesting and chasing every lead that we can to try to fill the vacancies.”
He noted, however, that Bixby Knolls had a few setbacks last year, including the departure of two major corporate retailers– Ralphs grocery store and Orchard Supply Hardware, also known as OSH. He added, however, that the loss of the retailers now creates openings for new large tenants.
“We lost two corporations in the same year, but you have to realize something, those decisions were made at the corporate level and a long time ago,” Cohn said. “There’s conversation with those property owners, and we’re going to take that to the next level.”
A major enhancement for Bixby Knolls this year is expected to be the overhaul to the Expo Arts Center. Plans include moving the BKBIA office and the 8th District Council office, side-by-side, into the building, he said.
According to city officials, the nearly $300,000 renovation project, mostly paid for through former redevelopment funds, is expected to be completed in the next few months after the entire northern section of the building, including the Back Room Theatre, was flooded by rain during a roofing project about a year ago.
“The City is investing a fortune in it, because they recognize the importance of it in the neighborhood,” Cohn said, adding that he hopes the former furniture warehouse will eventually become known as “the arts center in the city of Long Beach.”
He also noted recent street repairs. While roadwork created a traffic jam along Atlantic Avenue during the holidays last year, Cohn said it should only enhance the district.
“All roads lead to Bixby Knolls,” he said.
BKBIA is also planning to work on “place making” and creating “public gathering spots.” Concepts include adding more pedestrian lighting to make Bixby Knolls “as bright as 2nd Street,” putting benches in front of the Expo building, developing a “pocket park” near Georgie’s Place and turning an alley behind businesses on Atlantic Avenue and Burlinghall Drive into a “comfortable” public space with a “living room” design for concerts and events.
“We want to create these things where people can gather and hang out so it’s not just a freeway up Atlantic or Long Beach Boulevard, but people can stop and make that connection,” Cohn said.
One of Bixby Knolls’ most popular events is First Fridays, he said, adding that the monthly event has been a model for other Long Beach communities, including the 5th District, which has organized a Fourth Fridays in Lakewood Village.
“If you’ve been to First Fridays, especially over the last year and a half, you’ve seen it grow and grow,” Cohn said. “It’s now become a prime event, [and] we have our security out to make sure it’s family-friendly and safe.”
Some “problems of success,” however, are that the event has attracted what he calls “rogue” venders or businesses that come in from outside the area to capitalize on the generated foot traffic. Cohn said only Bixby Knolls businesses are allowed to participate.
He added that the BKBIA has decided to eliminate its “voluntary membership” and is only serving the some 800 businesses that pay assessments for services and are located within the district’s boundaries.
Accrediting Bixby Knolls for establishing a “rising tide,” Cohn said the BKBIA is sharing its notes with the newly formed Uptown Property and Business Improvement District, located farther north on Atlantic Avenue.
The BKBIA is also working with businesses to create what he calls “flash events,” in which the association helps promote an event for a business that may provide free food, drinks or services for marketing purposes. He said the BKBIA worked on such an event for Flame Broiler restaurant, which gave out nearly 125 free chicken bowls.
Other more regular events in Bixby Knolls include the “Kidical Mass” family bike rides, supper-club dinners, happy hours, the Bixby Knolls Strollers walks, literary-society meetings and Concerts in the Park(ing lot).
Still, Cohn noted that Bixby Knolls has its vulnerabilities, especially after the State abolished redevelopment, which had helped pay for much of the district’s improvements throughout the years.
The BKBIA is now in its third year of a 10-year contract with the former Long Beach Redevelopment Agency that provides nearly $200,000 a year, paying for major façade improvements, a coordinator for First Fridays and CSI Patrol to provide security services three to four days of the week.
Cohn cautioned, however, that the community has to plan ahead since the contract could at any time be canceled by the State and will eventually come to an end. In the coming months, the BKBIA board is expected to explore options, including donations, grants, fundraising events or possibly raising the assessment on businesses in the district, he said.
“Who wants to see Bixby Knolls go backwards and stop?” Cohn asked the crowd. “I mean, frankly, I don’t think there’s anybody who wants someone in that office just sitting by the phone but not having any resources to do anything … We can’t think about it at year nine of the contract. We have to start thinking ahead… In the meantime, we’re still dreaming, and there’s many possibilities.”