Downtown Long Beach Alliance President and CEO Austin Metoyer sat down with Business Journal reporter Brandon Richardson inside Altar Society Brewing on Pine Avenue on Tuesday, Dec. 5 to talk about how the city’s urban core is changing. As the chief executive of the DLBA, a nonprofit that uses a dedicated tax assessment to promote and improve Downtown, Metoyer is well-positioned to understand the challenges of the area and help chart its future. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Brandon Richardson: You obviously talk to a lot of business owners constantly. What’s the overall business atmosphere in Downtown according to people on the ground? What are you hearing from business owners?

Austin Metoyer: The overall sentiment is they feel like Downtown is in this transition period, where they are still feeling the impacts of the pandemic, remote work and people still trying to feel out where they fit in Downtown. So they’re seeing that in both foot traffic, but also their sales overall. But I think they’re all cautiously optimistic about the future of Downtown — they see a lot of this development that’s happening, they know that new people are moving in. They see the transition happening.

BR: What’s your favorite new local business that’s opened in Downtown this year?

AM: We’re literally in it right now. [laughter] OK, first off, I gotta say, it’s a little unfair for me to say what is my favorite business because I love all businesses equally. I am a big beer and pizza person, so I love Altar. I continue to like 4th Horseman and Milana’s New York Pizzeria — don’t count them out for their pizza. But I’d also say that I did a whole June of going vegetarian and Sugar Taco was my go-to spot for non-meat food. And I think it also has changed the vibe over on Magnolia and Broadway, which has lacked a lot of food options outside of the Flame Boiler and Starbucks.

And then I’ll give it to Masaya … over on Fifth and Pine. They celebrated their one-year anniversary in September. It’s a clothing apparel, so it’s something very different for North Pine. Outside of Vintage Etc. there’s no real clothing options up there. I probably buy something from [Masaya] at least once a month.

BR: What’s the one business or amenity that you think Downtown is missing?

AM: This has been said for years and I’ll continue to beat this drum: We need another grocery option and we need some type of home goods store. We have a lot of folks moving into these residential complexes. The Downtown Plan reduced parking minimums to try to encourage people to walk and take public transit, and if we want to create a Downtown where no one needs to drive somewhere else, then we need those two options. A lot of folks that are moving here or that already live here are driving to 2ND & PCH or to Signal Hill, they’re driving to the east side for their Target, Trader Joe’s and Sprouts. Those are the two key things we need to make a more complete Downtown.

BR: It’s no secret Downtown has its challenges, namely crime and homelessness. Can you talk about the implications of those challenges faced by residents and businesses alike?

AM: Our downtown isn’t any different than any other downtown that’s facing challenges across the country. The impacts of the pandemic, remote work, all these other factors have only highlighted the challenges that may have already been there or accelerated some of them. For residents and for business owners, their primary concern has always been safety — ensuring their employees can be safe when they come to their storefront, their customers can be safe in this area. When a resident walks out of their house, they want to make sure that they can walk safely and be comfortable. [This year] we’ve definitely seen a little bit more activity than we have in the past, but I also see that there are a lot more resources that have been put forward to try to address it, whether it’s issues related to homelessness and the unhoused population or petty theft and property crime.

The DLBA in 2021 started a storefront recovery grant program for all of our storefronts that were hit by vandalism. And the city followed suit in the last year to do the same thing, which it hadn’t been doing before. So that was finally putting some resources to helping address some of the crimes that those business owners were feeling. As of recently, the city has put forward additional resources like [the police department’s] action plan as well as the $5.3 million for the encampment resolution to look at Billie Jean King Library and Lincoln Park. I think 2023 is the first time I’ve seen a lot more resources put into the process than in the past.

BR: Officials have been very vocal about these two issues [crime and homelessness], particularly how they’re impacting Downtown. Can you talk a little bit about the response? Are they living up to what they’re saying? Has the response been adequate?

AM: Programs that have rolled out over the last year, I think they have followed through on them, but I do think there are some programs [officials] rolled out in other parts of the city that would probably be better suited for Downtown. For example, the city rolled out a crisis response team on the Westside. The individuals that we see here in Downtown, the ones that most of our business owners or residents call for, are dealing with some type of behavioral health, mental health or substance abuse issue and PD probably isn’t the correct response. The crisis response team is. They have the resources and the experts on hand to deal with those situations. That’s one area where I would like to see the city kind of move toward Downtown.

But when it comes to homeless outreach coordinators coming to Downtown, they have been weekly. They come to St. Luke’s Episcopal Church every Saturday, they’re at Lincoln Park. When it comes to the [Police Department’s] South Division coordinating with the neighborhood associations, they’re doing that. And the city prosecutor team has given us a dedicated person for Downtown.

I will say there are other agencies that really need to step in. I think the county could be doing more. I think Metro certainly can be doing more. And then ultimately, I think this is a statewide issue, so I would love to see our state representatives do a little bit more on these issues as well.

Downtown Long Beach Alliance CEO Austin Metoyer addresses Downtown residents, business owners and Long Beach police during a Coffee With A Cop event outside Pie Bar Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

BR: To your point, a lot of mental health services are above the city. The county is really the one handling much of that.

AM: The challenges we see with mental health and behavioral issues, the city is not equipped to handle at this point. It’s the county. So we have to rely on them and we have to advocate for them to give us the resources we need.

BR: Officials have called for more police patrols. Have you seen this in action? If so, is it making a difference?

AM: I have seen more of a police presence. And I’ve had business owners note to me, particularly on Pine Avenue and in East Village that they do see more police out — whether it’s bike patrol or vehicle patrol, they are there. I think PD is in a tough spot because they are down in their overall staffing. So when they do event action plans like this, where they give Downtown resources, they are pulling from somewhere else. Until they get to full staffing, we’ll never be able to truly have the coverage that we need. But I have seen more PD around and I think that has given a sense of comfort to business owners.

BR: Outside of the two most prominent issues in crime and homelessness, what do you spend most of your time focused on?

AM: So I think the two things are marketing and events, and attraction. For marketing and events, DLBA is looking at how to get people back out and into Downtown. For new folks that live here, how do we get them to explore their new home? And for folks coming from outside of Long Beach, how do we get them to stay here? We just completed a roller disco on Saturday, Dec. 2 that had the Grinch. We’re doing a lot of different partnerships with the library, parks and a couple of other organizations on things like Lincoln Park WinterFest that’s coming up. Fireworks for New Year’s Eve. It’s just what can we do to get people here to explore and have a good time?

And then on the other side, we recognize that there are vacancies in our storefronts. How do we showcase these spaces to potential new tenants? How do we connect with brokers to help them know that these are opportunities for them? And in the meantime, how do we highlight the space while it’s vacant? So our economic development team is working on an artists in residency program to have art in vacant spaces. But they’re also working with property owners and brokers to help showcase those spaces. We had someone who was looking at a space, he does beignets in Riverside and is looking at Long Beach for a second location. We toured a person who does a comedy show, he’s also looking for space in Downtown. So it’s being able to create opportunities to connect folks for these spaces and bring them here.

BR: What’s your outlook as we head into 2024 and beyond? Are you confident in the direction city leadership is going in terms of addressing these issues?

AM: Yeah, I’d say I’m fairly confident in where we’re going. As I mentioned before, I think the issues we’re seeing, some of them are beyond the city’s scope. Some of them are county and state issues that really require a lot more proactive leadership. But I do think the city has a role to play in that and I do think this past year, our city leadership has come to see that there needs to be additional attention on Downtown. Downtown is the heart of the city. It is the largest economic driver. And if you don’t invest in it, if you don’t maintain it, the whole city will be impacted.

BR: Some business owners have complained about an additional Downtown fee on top of their business licensing costs each year. I’m pretty sure they’re talking about the assessment that funds the DLBA. Can you talk a little bit about what the organization does with its funds to promote this area in order to help the businesses that are here?

AM: We manage two districts: One is a merchant district and one is a property district. So business owners pay an assessment on their business license fee. That’s the additional fee that they’re looking at. This is the same fee that they pay when they move to Belmont, when they move to Bixby, when they move to Retro Row. Commercial property owners pay a fee and that fee goes specifically for the clean and safe services. The fee that business owners pay that the DLBA collects goes to a handful of services. As I mentioned earlier, the marketing aspect, whether it’s their business specifically being marketed, whether it’s the entire Downtown or a neighborhood we market, whether it’s the gift card giveaways that we do for a variety of businesses throughout the year, whether it’s grants, whether it’s hosting an event at a location to drive foot traffic there — that is what they’re paying for. And that is the only thing those funds can be used for. I can’t take those dollars and go spend them outside of the district. They are here to be reinvested in the community to help support those business owners.

BR: You mentioned that DLBA hosts events. Why is it important for the community for the organization to hold these events?

AM: People need to feel like Downtown is their community. When you know the person behind the business, it’s not a nameless entity. When you know these people, they are part of your community and you want to support your community. I think creating events — whether it’s Taste of Downtown, roller disco or anything else like that — gives people the opportunity to come out and meet their neighbors, to meet the business owners behind the counter, to explore their community.

I think the pandemic really created this disconnect between people and the places they live. It is our job to help bridge those connections again. That’s what events do. Even the neighborhood associations recognize that they need to get back to reconnecting with each other and they need to support their local businesses. So they are making a concerted effort to do mixers on Pine Avenue and help support businesses, do mixers on the Promenade and so forth because they know the only way Downtown survives is if they show up for them.

BR: Prior to the pandemic, the DLBA actually had more events. I’d imagine you guys are still trying to ramp up back to where you were. Can you tell me any plans for new events?

AM: I probably can’t announce anything until the press release goes out. But we are going to be doing more events. Pre-2018 DLBA was doing a lot of different events. We did Promenade Beer and Wine, we were doing Live After 5. And at the time, there were a number of other organizations that were starting to use the same events in and around Downtown. We did a beer festival, somebody else would do their festival. So it became a question of, does it make sense for us to be duplicating efforts if there are already organizations that are stepping up and doing that?

When we did our strategic plan back in 2021, that was one thing that was highlighted: We didn’t need to produce large events anymore, just more frequent, smaller events and to help support other community events. So one thing that we did was we released the micro grant program. Last year was the first year we did it. We just did our second round and we supported 10 community organizations that host events in Downtown.

Internally, we’re also rethinking our current events. Is there a different way that we can set them up so that more people can be involved and that the impact is greater? So when we think about Taste of Downtown, it’s a heavily food-based event — is there a way of bringing that food inside storefronts so that the stores can also benefit from that additional traffic and it’s not going to one place. I think that’s what we’re looking at for 2024. And then also, like I said, just bringing back some of the small, consistent events that just bring people out.

BR: So we’ve talked about grants a little bit.Why is it important to offer this direct support to businesses in addition to the more indirect support of marketing and events?

AM: A little bit of fusion of capital can help spur a lot of activity for folks in any form that it comes in — whether it’s a direct women-owned businesses grant or helping with the repair of a window. I think it’s important for an organization like ours to show that we are supporting the community in a variety of different ways.

BR: A lot of housing has come online recently, some are getting close and then others are a few years out. What do these additional units mean for Downtown and the businesses here?

AM: We were, for a long time, in a holding phase for a bunch of projects to be completed. Well, now we can finally say that since 2015, we’ve had 3,100 units come online in a variety of different configurations — studios, ones, twos for empty nesters, young couples, single folks. That’s a lot of new people coming to Downtown. On top of that, under construction, we have about another 1,300 units. That is fundamentally going to change Downtown’s landscape as being more residential, especially if we’re not seeing office workers come back. The DLBA and business owners need to have a shift in mindset to connect with those residents, especially those who may have gotten very used to ordering everything online.

BR: Office vacancy is exceptionally high in Downtown right now, which is impacting foot traffic for businesses. What do you think the way forward is? Getting people back into the office? Converting more of these buildings to housing?

AM: Office vacancies are high across the board for all downtowns because of our old model to be more office-focused. I don’t think office workers are going to come back in the way that they did pre-pandemic. I don’t think any employer or commercial office property owner feels that way. It is wishful thinking for us to continue to think that. I also don’t believe we’re going to see a mass conversion of office spaces into residential buildings. When you think about how the office buildings are configured, where the restrooms are located, how much time and effort it takes to convert something over — not a lot of it happening.

I do think the city needs to find a way to make it easier for adaptive reuse and for conversion for housing, but I also think the city needs to look at the vacant office spaces and what are very flexible uses that you can do in those buildings. I think there needs to be a greater conversation on how we integrate Long Beach City College as well as Cal State Long Beach into the Downtown. There has been talk before of classroom spaces, but there needs to be a true conversation around that. I think there needs to be thoughts about what else can happen in these spaces that aren’t traditional offices. Can it be a museum? Can it be an art gallery? Can it be virtual gaming? Let’s be a little bit more creative.

BR: There’s one more massive lot in Downtown that is undeveloped: the Elephant Lot. What do you think would best serve Long Beach?

AM: Right now the city is undertaking the PD6 planning, looking at the vision for the waterfront and Shoreline, which includes that space. And there are a lot of community members and business leaders and developers that are discussing that and looking forward to it. My understanding based off of Coastal Commission is that housing can’t happen on that site, or anywhere within the waterfront, which is kind of sad because we desperately need housing. But I just lean back into the idea that we have so many great festivals that happen in Downtown — over by the Queen Mary, but also on the side of the bay. I think there’s a real opportunity for a stadium that would do really well. But anything that happens on that lot, my concern will always be connectivity between the water, the Elephant Lot and the Downtown core. Whatever goes there, whether it’s a stadium, whether it’s a music venue, whether it’s a giant hotel, what needs to be clear is that we want an area that feels pedestrian friendly. We want it to feel seamless and connected. And we don’t want large roadways to continue to separate spaces. Shoreline Drive is a large roadway that feels like a freeway and a lot of folks don’t feel safe crossing it. We need to make sure there’s clear access to the water and that needs to feel safe and it needs to be designed in a great way. A lot can happen on that site that I think would be really good for activation. But I’m leaning more toward some type of music venue that can double as a stadium.