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At State of District, Cohn discusses impending loss of RDA funds

The BKBIA director also celebrated 'consistency and longevity' of many programs

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Photos by Cory Bilicko | Signal Tribune
During his annual State of the District address at the Petroleum Club on Feb. 21, Blair Cohn, executive director of the Bixby Knolls Business Improvement Association, discussed the many successes, setbacks and challenges of the last year, as well as his association’s impending loss of redevelopment funds.

There has been much positive change in Bixby Knolls as a business hub in the last few years, but more change is on the way, as the association that oversees that district faces a loss of major redevelopment funding.

That issue was a key one that Blair Cohn, executive director of the Bixby Knolls Business Improvement Association (BKBIA), covered when he delivered his annual State of the District address at the Petroleum Club on Feb. 21.

Before Cohn spoke, however, he invited 8th District Long Beach Councilmember Al Austin to the stage to address the crowd.

“It’s been a great honor to see this community really, really grow,” Austin said. “It’s been a better situation to see the businesses– so many new, vibrant businesses– changing the character of our corridor on Long Beach Boulevard and Atlantic Avenue, and the engagement of our community that are here in support. It’s not just about our community anymore. Bixby Knolls is now a regional destination. People know about Bixby Knolls from all over, and they come here to work, to play, to enjoy, to shop.”

Austin then commended the BKBIA, and Cohn in particular, for their inventive approaches to leading the district.

“There are a number of business districts in the city of Long Beach,” Austin said. “There are business districts throughout Southern California, but none of them are performing like Bixby Knolls, and there’s a reason for that. We’ve got creative, innovative leadership, and we’ve got a very, very supportive board that allows that creativity to happen, but also a community that supports this.”

Cohn began his address by noting the parameters of the business area– from 33rd Street to 46th Street, and from Atlantic Avenue to Long Beach Boulevard– and the make-up of the BKBIA– 900 members with a board consisting of 10 volunteers plus four long-time residents who act as community liaisons.

He also identified his “small but mighty staff attempting to do big things,” which consists of project manager Katie Phillips and Clean Team director/”allery” curator Ronnie De Leon, as well as Thor Carlson and Kelly Bray.

“We’re out there keeping eyes and ears on the district every day, and it’s important to us that, whether you’re at 3711 [Atlantic Ave.] up in the tower, or you’re in the back of a business office, we keep the district maintained and watched all the time,” Cohn said. “We want your customers and clients to come and notice how clean it is or– even better– maybe they just don’t have to think [about it] at all, because it’s just a great place to come and do business here. That’s always No. 1– clean and safe, and we shift our resources that way.”

During the State of the District address at the Petroleum Club on Feb. 21, 8th District Long Beach Councilmember Al Austin referred to Bixby Knolls as “now a regional destination.”

He then presented a list of over 100 businesses that have joined the district since 2018. He acknowledged that change and turnover do persist, but that “we are positive for new versus gone.”

Cohn also mentioned that the association’s quarterly business breakfasts have been its best method for reaching and engaging members on a larger scale and have included guest speakers such as Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia and Leadership Long Beach, covering topics such as marketing strategies and networking.

Discussing challenges of the past year, Cohn mentioned that, despite its small size and a relatively tight budget, the staff takes on a great deal of projects, including safety, member outreach and graffiti abatement. Nevertheless, construction on Bixby Road had a negative impact on businesses, Cohn said.

“That was tough,” he said. “That was a challenge for those businesses.”

However, the biggest challenge, Cohn said, is that the end of redevelopment funds for the association is on the horizon. He said the BKBIA was fortunate to have a 10-year contract with the City before redevelopment funding was terminated a few years ago and those funds, which account for 49 percent of its overall budget, have provided the tools the association needs.

Cohn then presented a graphic illustrating the various district projects that redevelopment funding has covered, including: the Expo Arts Center; 10 revolving community events; an art “allery” with 64 panels; three murals; 85 new branded sidewalk decals; 3,000-plus hours of cleaning; 5,280 feet of sidewalk power-washed; 700 graffiti tags removed; 40 properties painted; 60 feet of sidewalk repaired; 220 lights repaired; 20 new signs; 110 banners; seven Eagle Scout projects; 210 trees planted; 42 trees trimmed; and one “pocket park.”

He added that, to date, it has been a $1.6-million investment that has also covered façade improvements, signage, landscaping and marketing.

Cohn said the BKBIA is addressing the shrinkage of funds by forming a new 501(c)3 charitable nonprofit arm that can receive grants and donations. The BKBIA also plans to get rent revenues by hosting more events and attracting more paying tenants. He also said the association has been meeting with city officials to explore all options for building revenue.

“I believe we have shown great value from these funds and cannot imagine that anyone would want to see this stop, including the local residents,” he said.

He also announced that the first business directory in five years will soon go to print and will be distributed to 16,000 homes and all businesses. Cohn said they are reinstating the practice because there have been numerous changes to the area, and the BKBIA wants to reach any new neighbors of the district, update long-time residents and share information about the goings-on of the association.

One new feature is the Destination Bixby Knolls campaign, the first phase of which was just launched; “Brewery Knolls” organically developed as a result of the numerous breweries and craft-beer businesses that have sprung up in the district in the last few years. A “beer trolley” was used during the last such undertaking to connect the different venues, and the event will soon become a monthly one. Cohn said, looking at the bigger picture, the trolley provides a tour of the district that just happens to stop at the beer places but serves to expose “new eyes” to the area. The campaign will soon focus on other clusters of business, including medical/dental, financial, design/creative and retail/food.

Cohn then joked about a “huge earthquake” that occurred last April– the alleged termination of the very popular First Fridays Art Walk. He explained that misleading news headlines and rumors made it challenging for the BKBIA to clarify what was actually happening: that the association would transition out from being the organizer of the walk and hand it back over to the business members to plan activities in their individual locations, in a return to the roots of First Fridays.

Cohn said the event had moved away from its original mission of getting people into the local businesses and had become very expensive to manage with the costs of booking entertainment, getting permits and having security patrols. Additionally, “rogue vendors” were showing up, and there were safety concerns with the large crowds of people moving along Atlantic Avenue. The BKBIA instead hosted an event called Summer Saturdays to put focus back on the businesses themselves.

He also highlighted the consistency and longevity of the Bixby Strollers walking group, which has been around for 11 years, and the Kidical Mass bike rides, which have been happening for seven.

Although the Monday-night Supper Club meet-ups at local eateries had been put on hold because of waning attendance, the event has returned.

Cohn also discussed other activities and programs the BKBIA has organized, such as Knights of the Round (Turn)Table, Concerts in the Park(ing) Lot, flash events, Bixby Knolls Bingo for Small Business Saturday and Putt Putt in the Knolls.

In citing new developments, he referred to the building at 3838 Atlantic Ave. that is gutted and ready for a creative use, such as design, advertising or a co-work space. He also mentioned the expansion of Laserfiche, the development at Roosevelt Street and Atlantic Avenue, the Bixby Business Center’s remodeling and façade improvements, a new listing agent for the former Hof’s Hut location, the opening of a Smart & Final store a few months ago, the reopening of George’s ’50s Diner and the expansion of Little Owl Preschool.

He also stressed the association’s commitment to supporting local artists, as well as luring in those of national or international prestige.

Cohn also presented awards to some businesses, including several identified as Sponsors of the Year, which were: the local Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf; Georgie’s Place; Elise’s Tea Room; Orozco’s Auto Service; and the Law Office of Minh Nguyen.

The last recognition he presented was the BKBIA’s Orchid Award, which went to Brian Weightman and Cold Stone Creamery, for their contribution to the overall attractiveness of the district.

“This business is always immaculate and welcoming,” Cohn said. “We have seen the business owner on site early in the morning to clean up and prepare for the day, and then be out after 10pm sweeping and cleaning out front again. This business also suffered two incidents of vandalism during the year but bounced back each time, the owner still smiling and providing great product and service.”

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At State of District, Cohn discusses impending loss of RDA funds