By Greggory Moore, Long Beach Columnist
First Fridays is a staple of life in Bixby Knolls, the fairly affluent suburban enclave between the 405 and North Long Beach just east of the 710. Under the direction of Executive Director Blair Cohn, for more than a dozen years the Bixby Knolls Business Improvement Association has used the day to activate the area through a semi-coordinated variety of in-store and sidewalk events spanning a half-mile of the Atlantic corridor, the spine of the business district.
It’s just one of a host of programs and strategies Cohn and the BKBIA have employed to rouse Bixby Knolls from a fairly sleepy bedroom community to an area where businesses can really do business. “Blair has been a godsend for the Bixby Knolls business district because of his ability to bring businesses together […] to create a business district that’s vibrant, dynamic and a place where people want to come, walk, and dine,” 7th District Councilmember Roberto Uranga told the Long Beach Business Journal in November. “His ideas […] really ha[ve] opened up this area for a lot of people to want to come and visit Bixby Knolls.”
But beginning in March, business changed. COVID-19 came to town. Like all public gatherings in California, First Fridays was cancelled. “Nonessential” businesses were temporarily shuttered, and even “essential” ones — restaurants, hardware stores, etc. — were hit hard.
Long considered the gold standard for such organizations in Long Beach, the BKBIA is living up to its reputation during the pandemic. One of the most impactful programs they’ve put into play is funneling money into what Cohn calls “a business retention fund,” from which on the BKBIA pays out $200–$300 for biweekly flash events that residents find out about via email. Cohn says this not only provides the business with money and residents with free goods, but because the customers are getting a little something for free (a cup of coffee, a scoop of ice cream, a single entrée), “what people are doing then is tipping the staff really generously, buying additional items for the rest of the family, etc.”
As some businesses began to board up storefronts in response to the economic shutdown, Cohn felt this was “not a good look,” injecting the wrong sort of energy into the community. So he contracted local artists to transform the blank plywood panels into murals with messages of hope and solidarity. The Downtown Long Beach Alliance (DLBA) and 4th Street Business Association soon followed suit.
The BKBIA has also managed to find ways to keep its events calendar alive. The Bixby Knolls Literary Society, for example, continues to meet via Zoom, while the Bixby Knolls Strollers have adopted social-distancing protocols and thereby not missed a single Saturday walk. Weekly music playlists put together by guest curators fill in for Knights of the Round Turntable, and a weekly recommendation to classic jazz performances stands in for the Bixby Saturday Nights jazz concert series.
Also among the tireless stream of emails to the community is a virtual First Fridays experience that each month tips recipients off to a fully actualized piece of the event coming down their street — as in every street in Bixby Knolls, Cal Heights and Los Cerritos — sometime that evening. These include a mini-parade with a trolley, music and grand marshals of sorts (the Easter Bunny in April, Mickey and Minnie Mouse in May).
“I thought: ‘Let’s take it to the next level. If people can’t come to the event, let’s bring the event to the people,’” said Cohn. “The absolute joy on people’s faces and the kids’ reactions when they discovered Mickey and Minnie were in their neighborhood, the people on their porches […] We built up all this momentum over all these years with [various events] — we can’t let our residents disconnect from us, and we can’t disconnect from them. We can’t be ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ So the goal has been to constantly create new content.”
It’s this kind of hustle that led Mayor Robert Garcia to tap Cohn as a member of the city’s newly-formed Economic Recovery Advisory Group. “Blair’s leadership of the BKBIA has long been a paradigm of how a BID can lift up its businesses and the whole community,” said Garcia. “No surprise that he’s stepped up during this crisis. I appreciate the impact the BKBIA is having.”
Biggest among the BIDs, with 10 full-time staffers and a whopping 1,600 businesses, the DLBA is also employing a variety of strategies to help its members weather the storm. Under the leadership of President/CEO Kraig Kojian (also a member of Garcia’s Economic Recovery Advisory Group), the DLBA hired former Long Beach Business Journal editor Samantha Mehlinger as the DLBA’s first permanent, full-time communication manager. Mehlinger has spearheaded the strategy with a heavy dose of online outreach and resources, including a new weekly newsletter to businesses, an annotated list of businesses open during the pandemic and a regularly updated “one-stop online resource” of COVID-19-related guidelines, services and opportunities for businesses, workers, residents and persons experiencing homelessness. The DLBA is also hosting a weekly webinar series for its members covering “the far-reaching impacts from COVID-19 and how to address them.”
As for direct assistance, in April the DLBA partnered with Farmers & Merchants Bank to provide 30 microgrants of $1,000 apiece. Although their events calendar does not match the BKBIA’s, the DLBA is sponsoring daily giveaways via Instagram, typically two to four $25–$100 digital gift cards. And rather than cancel, on May 29–30 the annual Taste of Downtown goes virtual, featuring a variety of webstreams via Facebook, including culinary demonstrations, fitness classes and a headlining live music performance.
Like the DLBA, the Uptown Business Improvement District has maintained their Clean and Safe programs, reports Executive Director Tasha Hunter, “cleaning the entire corridor and pressure-washing the sidewalks on a weekly basis. Our Safety Team at […] has shifted from bicycle patrol to vehicle patrol seven days per week, eight hours [per] day and is on-call 24 hours.” And consistent with most other BIDs and associations, the Uptown PBID is keeping its members apprised of financial resources available to the businesses. However, the organization’s website has not been updated in any way.
With far fewer resources than the above-mentioned groups, Long Beach’s smaller business associations are scrambling. With a part-time staff of one and an all-volunteer board, it doesn’t get much smaller than the Zaferia Business Association, which Executive Director Kristine Hamond says “operates solely on the merchant and commercial property assessments, […] not generat[ing] any other type of revenue. We are a lean machine.”
Nonetheless, Hammond notes that “the ZBA has been a communication channel of important information from the City of Long Beach, […] making our members aware of the variety of financial information and help that is available.” Additionally, the ZBA has doubled its sponsored social media budget, and advertised on behalf of members on the Long Beach Post and Google, “and we blast out emails to our full distribution list highlighting members and the services or specials they provide.” The ZBA has also provided free face masks and hand sanitizer to its membership and recently began creating flash events similar to the BKBIA model.
Smaller still is 4th Street Business Association, with its all-volunteer board aided by a single, part-time independent contractor. President Jennifer Hill notes that, in addition to daily communications to members, parking meters were turned off at the lot at 4th/Cherry so customers and residents could park for free. Following the lead of the BKBIA, the association secured local muralists to beautify the plywood put up to cover certain business fronts, as well as “working with a local artist to have posters made to display on our Big Belly trash/recycling cans with messages letting the community know we’re in this together.”
“We don’t have the budgets that other BIDs have, so we’re trying to be as creative as possible in finding ways to support the street,” Hill says. “We’re an incredibly tight knit group, so a lot of us have also been personally checking in on each other, providing moral support,= and working to uplift one another. We all know that in order for us to get through this, we need to lean on each other for all the support we can get.”
Then there’s the Naples Island Business Association. Without a single paid staffer or contractor, President Bob Lane says NIBA, in collaboration with the Naples Improvement Association, has nonetheless created a new webpage with information about businesses open during the pandemic, ramped up its social media presence and purchased 200 signs for residents and businesses as part of the “Naples Strong” campaign, an effort to uplift the community through unity.
While even the biggest and most monied BIDs and BIAs do not have sufficient resources to insulate their members from the tribulations of COVID-19, a little creativity may go a long way to boosting community spirit and the feeling that together they just might find a way through this. “It’s people staying engaged,” says Blair Cohn. “It’s keeping hope alive.”
Note: The Belmont Shore Business Association did not respond to multiple requests for comment, and the only COVID-19-related posting on their website is a list of businesses that remain open in some capacity (https://www.belmontshore.org/open-belmont-shore-business/). Random Lengths News also didn’t receive a response from the Midtown Business Improvement District (which includes Cambodia Town), whose website (http://mbidlb.com/) neither mentions COVID-19 nor provides any links to pertinent resources.