Cultural events like parades and food festivals were among the many economy-boosting and community-building activities that had to take a pause during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic—and Long Beach officials are hoping their return can help bolster the city’s recovery.

To that end, officials have announced that some funding from the Long Beach Recovery Act—the city’s law guiding how to spend the more than $200 million in state and federal aid it has received since the start of the public health crisis—can be used to pay for those events.

The idea of using that money for special events started with the City Council earlier this year, when the panel approved an item from Councilmember Al Austin that asked city staff to look into whether it would be a permissible use of the funds.

“I think it’s only right to look at opportunities to support some of these cultural events that really define our city,” Austin said at the time.

And now, it appears, Long Beach has a plan to do just that. Meredith Reynolds, the special deputy city manager for recovery, wrote in a memo earlier this month that the city will reconfigure the Property Activation Grant Program within the LBRA to offer:

  • Eight grants of up to $25,000 to nonprofits for large citywide cultural events, with funding available to offset special event permits and fees;
  • Seven grants of up to $15,000 to nonprofits for city-supported cultural events, with funding available to offset special event permits and fees; and
  • 10 seed grants of up to $3,000 to community-based organizations and nonprofits for free community cultural events.

Reynolds also laid out several other programs that were already poised to support cultural events, such as the Economic Empowerment Zone (EEZ)/Economic Innovation District (EID) Program, which dedicates $3.4 million toward creating culturally focused districts that would be home to all kinds of events. That program, according to Reynolds, is slated to launch in the fall.

I wanted to get a better sense, though, of what these plans mean on a practical level. Will the city be using its recovery funds to pay for long-standing events like the Martin Luther King Jr. parade or Hispanic Heritage Month, which have been supported in the past, in part, by individual City Council office funds? Or is the city imagining that these programs will help pay for the creation of new cultural events?

Reynolds told me that the way the city has structured the programs can allow for both.

“We have a combination of grants that are going to be available that are for large, citywide special events that the city in the past has not funded,” she said, “and there’s also a component of the program that will provide direct relief grants for existing citywide special events that the city does provide some funding for, so those are things like the Veterans Day parade and festival, the Martin Luther King Jr. parade and celebration, Día de los Muertos, the Jazz Festival and some others. So it will be something that can offset the city’s special events permits and fees because that is usually one of the larger components of cost for these events.”

But the creation of new events to celebrate the city’s many cultures, Reynolds said, would also be welcome.

“We’re trying to remove as many barriers to participation as possible and to allow community groups to use their knowledge and their perspective,” she said, “to tell us what they think the funding can be used for.”

But by its nature, the funding is limited. The Long Beach Recovery Act runs through the end of 2024—so while the money could, in theory, fund a few iterations of an annual event, it’s not a long-term solution.

Reynolds said she expects many groups will be interested in using the funds for one-off celebrations, but there aren’t any restrictions that would prevent anyone from using a grant to pay for multiple events over a few years.

Still, this type of city support is effectively a change in longstanding policy. I asked Reynolds if she thought using the money this way could pave the way for more city support for these events further into the future.

“It is really too early to tell at this point,” she said. “I think what we’re able to do with the funding is be transparent about how it’s used and collect good data to demonstrate the impact, and that is something we’re then able to use to make future decisions.

“All of these programs we’re rolling out have a component of collecting data, so we have the knowledge of how effective or useful or impactful the programs are,” Reynolds added. “How are they improving quality of life? What kind of impact did they have? Because we’re really focusing on outcomes that are related to equity and collective impact, so we want to be able to look at the data evaluating those things and be able to tell that story.”

Hayley Munguia is editor of the Long Beach Business Journal.