As the Great Recession hit Americans a decade ago, one of the major consequences was the impact it would have on small businesses.
Thriving markets floundered, and entities barely staying afloat seldom had a chance to survive the biggest stock crash since the Great Depression.
At the annual State of the District address on Feb. 15, Blair Cohn detailed the initial struggle of first operating as the Bixby Knolls Business Improvement Association’s (BKBIA) new executive director 10 years ago.
Slightly disheartened but determined, Cohn looked for creative ways to expand the BKBIA’s influence on the neighborhood and surrounding businesses.
“I would meet a business owner and, a couple of weeks later, they would close up shop,” Cohn said, as he addressed the crowd at the Long Beach Petroleum Club for the event. “I said, ‘I don’t know what we’re going to do here. We need to start thinking about this.’ The district had a lot of vacancies. It was a little bit dusty. But, we had lots of potential. There was great history here, great people, and the BIA was working toward these missions.”
It’s currently 2018, and the BKBIA has long distanced itself from its financial struggles of years prior, when it operated out of an “old, dusty, patch-tailor office” at 4313 Atlantic Ave. But, Cohn also warned of future dangers that could threaten the association’s finances, which has allowed it to make façade improvements and various neighborhood reparations and host organized events.
In about two years, the BKBIA’s contract with construction firm Resource Development Agency (RDA) will come to an end.
Cohn said the RDA is critical to the aesthetic development of Bixby Knolls. Within the first couple of years as executive director, he negotiated a deal with the RDA for money to refurbish buildings, fix business landscapes, upgrade security lighting and use resources to make businesses visually appealing and efficient.
“So, when that money goes away, and we don’t have a solution to replace it,” Cohn said, “you will hear the sound of the dominoes starting to fall, and the last thing you’ll hear is the sound of the door close at the BIA office.”
One of Cohn’s proposed solutions is going to the City of Long Beach and reaching an agreement about replacing the looming monetary loss.
Other ideas involve utilizing the Expo Arts Center, 4321 Atlantic Ave., and investing in it to create a working multi-use space.
“That means office space, to small-business incubator space, to artist studios upstairs, to some retail in it,” he said. “Transforming its use to its maximum. Trying to get some money out of it. Plus, a common space for events.”
The City also suggested using parking meters, but Cohn said he scouted areas around the neighborhood and concluded that the revenue earnings would be minimal.
Cohn said the situation is a predicament around the region, claiming that neighborhoods, such as downtown and uptown Long Beach, Cambodia Town, Belmont Shore and east Anaheim, have all endured significant losses in money.
“It’s a dilemma, and I’m not saying it to be Doomsday, but I have to tell you the reality of it,” he said. “But, what will happen is that our part-timers are no-timers, and a full-timer may not be anything but an answering machine […].”
Cohn said the BKBIA is working with a small staff and budget. Other challenges have included citywide increases in homelessness and petty crime, the latter of which has been weathered through assistance from the Long Beach Police Department (LBPD) and CSI Security Patrol, a service of security personnel that routinely patrols the district day and night.
The BKBIA is doing the best it can to address all its challenges, concluded Cohn.
Not all is sour, however.
The BKBIA recently completed its first major façade-improvement project at 2116 Long Beach Blvd., which houses a fitness gym, a smog-check business and a tire- and auto-repair shop. Equipped with new signage and lighting, the renovations are one of many steps to help expand the BKBIA’s reach to other neighborhoods in Long Beach.
Cohn said Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia’s office called the BKBIA and proposed major upgrades along Long Beach Boulevard from 10th Street to Willow Street. Cohn called it a monumental task to fix the transit corridor, which is the area people see when arriving in and out of the city, but he said the BKBIA simply followed its mantra to never turn down opportunities.
And other cities have taken notice of Bixby Knolls’ district boom. City officials from Compton and Whittier have visited the BKBIA office seeking advice about improving their neighborhoods.
“I was thrilled to death that Compton was looking to do a similar type of First Fridays concept,” Cohn said. “We sat with them, looked at their maps and gave them some advice. And we did the same with the downtown part of Whittier.”
He added that it’s a “fun challenge, and we’re all in,” also quipping that the BKBIA lends itself to put more work on its plate because “we don’t have much to do.”
As Cohn gave his remarks, a projector displayed 10 years of the BKBIA’s history, which included photos of events and work on businesses.
In the midst of the 2008 recession, one of the BKBIA’s first courses of action was to start a walking club.
“And people say, ‘Well, that’s really unusual. Why would you start a walking club in a business association? I don’t get it,’” he said. “[…] Well, we’re going to do things differently, and we’re going to get people together, and we have to get them to meet each other and learn [about the district]. So, literally, we walked up and down our business corridors and walked into the neighborhoods. Ten years later, we’re just as strong. Every Saturday, they take off at 7:30 from Coffee Bean to […] every nook and cranny. We continue to do that. Coming out of this are lasting friendships and getting our mission across, instilling neighborhood pride, and that was one way to do it.”
“Energy begets energy,” Cohn said, and the BKBIA’s formula for steady district growth seemed to include being engaged with community needs and being personable.
Then came the Literary Society, now 120 months and 120 books straight into its existence. Soon, it was followed by what are now community staples, such as First Fridays, Kidical Mass bike rides and the Good Spirits Club.
Cohn said a significant day in the BKBIA’s existence was when it hosted its first tree-planting. The morning of the tree-planting, 300 people arrived and signed in to help.
“I stood back and thought, ‘Look, the people are here, the energy is here […] we’re on the right track,’” he said. “[…] We focused on the things we did have. It wasn’t, ‘Oh, we don’t have a this, there isn’t a movie theatre, we don’t have a that.’ I was just more interested in what we did have.”
To promote Bixby Knolls businesses, the BKBIA did window activations, which would involve scouting the area for vacant windows at properties and engaging the owners to request decorating them with posters, images, slogans and other visuals to put “the eyes back to the businesses.”
Within a span of 10 years, the Expo Arts Center has also transformed into a center of industry in Bixby Knolls, also housing the 8th-district field office and serving as a neighbor to the BKBIA, which is based next door.
Recently celebrating its one-year anniversary, the Steelcraft lot on Long Beach Boulevard was also a “game changer” for Bixby Knolls.
“Now, I can go to a lot of places up and down the district and recognize faces,” Cohn said. “But, I go to Steelcraft and say, ‘I don’t know who these people are.’ I think it’s wonderful, and I listen to them. ‘Where are you coming from?’ From Pasadena, from South Bay, from South Orange County. I think it’s great. It’s the new era of Bixby and where we need to be.”
Cohn also joked that Bixby Knolls will soon become “Brewery Knolls,” as Liberation Brewing will open in a couple of weeks on Atlantic Avenue and join other similar institutions, such as Ambitious Ales, Smog City Brewing and Dutch’s Brewhouse.
Cohn said he believes the district is better off than it was 10 years ago, pointing out that vacancies are low in Bixby Knolls.
He praised City departments for being great supporters of the neighborhood and association and assisting where needed.
He also spotlighted the more recreational and fun side of the neighborhood, in which the ideas for a real-life duke and duchess were formed and executed– both of whom were in attendance. Out-of-the-box innovations are what have allowed the BKBIA to endure in the first place, Cohn said.
“What other neighborhood has a duke and duchess?” he said. “[…] We’ve got superheroes. We’ve got the Knolls Ranger and the Bixby Dove. Because, why not? Because it wasn’t happening anywhere else, and we were going to do it in Bixby Knolls first. That was the answer to the question.”