Mayor Robert Garcia speaks to local business owners, business leaders, city staff and more during a roundtable at Rose Park Roasters in Downtown Long Beach Tuesday, March 8, 2022. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

Downtown Long Beach is slowly coming back to life as COVID-19 restrictions continue to lift, but foot traffic in the area is still well below its pre-pandemic level.

It’s a problem that has kept small businesses from fully reaping the benefits of the ongoing economic recovery—and one city officials are hoping to tackle.

Business owners spoke about the issue with Mayor Robert Garcia on Tuesday during the first of nine “recovery roundtables” that Garcia is hosting in each City Council district to hear from business leaders about their concerns and challenges as Long Beach seeks to bounce back from the pandemic.

The first edition, in the 1st District that includes Downtown, focused both on the difficulties of how business has shifted during COVID-19 and on issues like homelessness and public safety.

“All of my workers are girls in their 20s, and they’ve had some bad incidents in the parking garage,” The Pie Bar owner Laurie Gray told Garcia. “Some of them have been scared and have to be escorted to their car at night. So that’s just my biggest concern right now—is that people don’t feel safe working and visiting Downtown so that they can support small businesses.”

Garcia and city staff present at the meeting, including Deputy Police Chief Gerardo Prieto, spoke about initiatives to better publicize appropriate city contacts for those concerns. Prieto also shared plans for an upcoming shift toward the use of patrol officers on bikes in the Downtown area.

But another key step to reviving Downtown Long Beach, Garcia said, will be bringing back the events and attractions that make Downtown unique. Their departure—while necessary to stem the public health crisis—left a void, and businesses are feeling the effects.

“There is dramatically less people out on the street,” Garcia said. “When there’s less people out on the street, there’s less eyes out on the street, and there’s more opportunities for problems.”

“It’s not just public safety—even issues around homelessness directly relate to how many people are out on the streets,” he added. “We can solve so much by getting economic activity going.”

To that end, Garcia—along with Long Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau President and CEO Steve Goodling and Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Jeremy Harris—said giving people a reason to visit Downtown Long Beach again will help address many of the problems the neighborhood’s businesses are now facing.

Convention business has already started to return. The Trans-Pacific Maritime (TPM) conference came back earlier this month with a 90% attendance rate, Goodling said.

And while conventions draw people from across the country and the world, Garcia said other events will help spur local and regional tourism, as well.

“We’re on a booking tear right now,” he said. “We’re just starting to book concerts and events and things like that. That’s going to bring a lot of people on top of the conventions. Then there’s the Grand Prix, there’s Pride—there’s certain weekends that bring a lot of people.”

“We used to have concerts every few weeks,” Garcia added. “They would bring in tens of thousands of people … and those are finally coming back.”

The hope, it seems, is that large events will be a key piece of bringing Downtown Long Beach back to a pre-pandemic normal. But city and business leaders also acknowledged that the large-scale shift to remote work also poses a challenge for the area’s small businesses.

“A lot of our office buildings are not yet full,” Garcia said. “We know that it’s never going to be the same. We’re never going to have as many folks in our corporate buildings as we did, and things have shifted, but we also have to encourage folks to come back to work.”

Restaurants, dry cleaners and other small businesses, he noted, rely on the daytime activity that Downtown’s office buildings generate.

“The small businesses are not going to survive,” Garcia said, “if we don’t encourage folks to come back.”

But in the meantime, Harris said the business community is looking to a rebound in tourism—both for business and pleasure—to fill in some of the gaps.

“This whole concept of, ‘Hey, it’s a benefit to work at home, stay at home,'” Harris said, “We all know, in Downtown, as the mayor alluded to earlier, that’s not helping” small businesses.

“So what we’ve been doing,” Harris added, “is we’ve gone around to all of our major hotel folks … and really started a campaign to welcome back small business restaurants, during the daytime, to their attendees—whether it’s conventions, whether it’s overnight stays—and let them know there’s mom-and-pop restaurants that are back open.”

It may be a small glimpse of a bigger, citywide campaign.

“We want to get the city and the [Downtown Long Beach Alliance] and the CVB and the Chamber—all of our partners together on something to put out to encourage folks to come back, to shop, to dine,” Garcia said. “The goal, at the end of these nine conversations, is: We want to get a little bit of a PR/marketing plan, kind of this ‘welcome back’ kind of plan. We don’t know what that looks like yet. Obviously that’s part of why we’re talking to folks. We want to hear what the needs are.”

Hayley Munguia

Hayley Munguia is editor of the Long Beach Business Journal.