With the Bixby Knolls Business Improvement Association facing an uncertain future due to its primary funding source drying up, Mayor Robert Garcia along with the City Council are proposing one-time funding for the organization as part of the 2021-2022 budget.
For the last decade, the association has received $200,0000 annually as the result of a contract with the city’s former Redevelopment Agency. The 10-year contract expires this year, leaving the neighborhood’s most crucial institution to seek new sustainable, long-term revenue streams.
For months, association Executive Director Blair Cohn has been in private talks with the mayor and councilmen regarding gap funding to get the organization past the financial hardships of the pandemic until regular funding sources are identified, according to Cohn and Garcia. Staring down its own financial hurdles brought on by COVID-19, funding through the city was not guaranteed, Cohn added.
But city officials said they are determined to make it happen.
“The bottom line is the city is not ever going to be in a position where we allow that organization to not exist or to fail,” Garcia said in an Aug. 13 phone interview. “We’re going to do whatever it takes to make sure the association has what it needs to be successful.”
The association’s request for $200,000 of one-time funding is supported by the full council, Garcia said. The funding will be brought to council in the next few weeks, he added, since the budget process must conclude in September for the start of the fiscal year on Oct. 1.
“Once it passes, we’re going to have a huge sigh of relief,” Cohn said.
Bixby Knolls lies within the districts of Councilmen Al Austin and Roberto Uranga. With Austin and Uranga being on the Budget Oversight Committee, both declined to comment on the upcoming decision to include funding in the budget. However, both Austin and Uranga highlighted the importance of the association for the community that runs through both their districts.
“The [association] has worked tirelessly to make Bixby Knolls a prime destination for residents of the city and the region,” Uranga said in an email. “Bixby Knolls offers much more than great food, drinks, and shopping, … Bixby Knolls is a place to find community.”
Austin echoed Uranga’s sentiment, saying the organization is a valued city partner that supports economic growth along the neighborhood’s commercial corridors, particularly through community events such as First Fridays, which creates a street fair atmosphere within the neighborhood. The association also hosts concerts, pop-up events at restaurants and various clubs for readers, music enthusiasts and walkers.
In addition to its programming, the association uses funds to pay for private security, landscaping, street cleanups, facade improvements and more. If future funding is not identified, events and services would have to be drastically cut or eliminated, Cohn said in a recent interview, adding the association may even have to revert to its old staffing level—a part-time executive director and an answering machine.
Cohn and the association’s board are considering numerous options to bring in revenue, including increasing annual fees for member businesses (currently about $280), creating a parking district and expanding its boundaries to include more businesses, particularly those along Orange Avenue from Wardlow Road to San Antonio Drive.
In the meantime, Cohn and the association have reached out to the community for support in the form of donations.
“On one hand, we are asking for it because we need it, but at the same time I get embarrassed,” Cohn said, adding that it is sometimes hard to ask for help. “But it’s not for me, it’s for continuing these programs.”
On social media, residents were asking Cohn how they could support him and the organization. Since the state of the association’s financial situation was made public earlier this month, Cohn said the organization has received at least $7,000 in donations from the community, including a $1,000 gift and an anonymous $3,000 contribution.
In an Aug. 11 Facebook comment, former association board member and Bixby Knolls resident Mark Hawkins said he was “blown away” by Cohn’s vision for the neighborhood when he took over the association about 14 years ago. Hawkins said Cohn has gone above and beyond what anyone ever expected, citing specifically the 11 parades he helped organize throughout the pandemic to keep the community connected during business closures.
“If Cohn’s template was used in every community in Long Beach,” he said, “the world would be a much happier place than it is now.”