Long Beach Heritage has a new program to recognize the city’s long-standing businesses.

After years of work, the organization’s Legacy Business Program officially kicked off at the nonprofit’s July 31 annual membership meeting, where the first 10 businesses were accepted into the program.

But work on the program began long before that summer meeting.

Joe Mello—who is part of the Long Beach Heritage Board of Directors—first got the idea for a legacy business program from a trip to San Francisco, which has a similar program that recognizes over 300 establishments as legacy businesses. The program provides a map of those businesses on an online registry, something that Mello and Long Beach Heritage are working to bring to Long Beach.

It was a program Long Beach Heritage could replicate locally, Mello thought.

The nonprofit was founded in 1982 with a focus on historical and architectural protection, but the group grew more active after the demolition of the Jergins Trust Building in 1988.

Long Beach Heritage’s members have upheld that mission ever since, often formally supporting or opposing projects that come before the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission. The nonprofit also owns and maintains the Bembridge House, a Victorian House built in 1906 that offers tours on Tuesdays.

As for the Legacy Business Program, a subcommittee within the nonprofit consisting of four volunteers—Mello, Mauna Eichner, Lee Fukui and Manny Valenzuela—was formed to try and create the program back in 2018. It would take more than four years for the program to come to life.

One of the more important steps in that journey was setting the criteria for businesses to be accepted. The first path to recognition is straightforward: having served as a business in Long Beach for 35 years or more.

But the subcommittee didn’t want to lock out younger businesses that have other attributes in their favor. So its members also came up with another route to acceptance.

Businesses that have not hit the 35-year mark must meet two of the following criteria:

  • Having been in service for at least 25 years;
  • Contributing a sense of history in the surrounding neighborhood;
  • Having distinctive architecture or other features; and
  • Supporting the neighborhood’s cultural life, diversity or identity.

“Really, [it’s] if your business is important to the neighborhood,” Eichner said, “although we don’t want someone that’s only 5-years-old.”

Some of those standards are obviously subjective, so the subcommittee hopes that businesses will be able to make an argument for which criteria they meet.

As for acceptance, three separate bodies within Long Beach Heritage get a say in who meets the requirements: The subcommittee review comes first, then the advocacy committee weighs in, and finally, the organization’s board of directors gets the final say.

With the parameters for the program in place, the subcommittee began looking for the businesses to get the program off the ground in 2019. The goal at the time was to launch the program during Architecture Week in June 2020.

To find businesses to apply for a program that was not yet public, the four members divided the city up into chunks. Each member drove around their designated area, searching for the distinctive features that would make a business a suitable candidate for the program. The subcommittee also reached out to the city to ask for a list of potential businesses.

“I found myself looking at historic neon signs or landscapes,” Valenzuela said. “We really did try to make it a broad search to try and plan these businesses.”

Eventually, the subcommittee landed on 28 businesses and began reaching out to them to gauge their interest. But that was in February 2020. The subcommittee was quickly forced to put its efforts on hold in mid-March 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Launching the program during Architecture Week was no longer a viable plan, but the subcommittee pressed on. That summer, members began working with the nonprofit Project Equity, which now also serves as one of the program’s sponsors. In addition to the 28 businesses that Long Beach Heritage initially identified, Project Equity suggested nine more minority-owned businesses and 20 other city-recommended businesses.

Long Beach Heritage did not consider those 29 businesses for the program’s first cohort, but some have been added to a list for future consideration. And beyond that, the partnership has proven fruitful. Project Equity helped shape the program’s vision and offered advertising opportunities to the Legacy Business Program at no cost.

“Project Equity—they helped bring us into thinking about other minority-owned businesses and women-owned businesses,” Fukui said.

While the COVID delay allowed the subcommittee to spend some time working on the program with Project Equity, the pause also created communication issues with the businesses Long Beach Heritage hoped to honor.

While the nonprofit’s initial contacts with businesses indicated interest and enthusiasm for the program, Fukui said it became harder and harder to maintain that contact.

Eventually, the 28 initial prospects winnowed down to the final 10 that were recognized in July, along with eight others that Long Beach Heritage is still in discussions with.

The subcommittee has a couple of theories as to why this may have occurred. One is that, for business owners, simply staying afloat during the worst of the pandemic took priority, and many may have forgotten to apply. Another is that many businesses may have ignored or rejected interactions because they believed that Long Beach Heritage was soliciting donations.

“It was very hard to get them to sit down and talk to us,” Fukui said. “Following up, I noticed I couldn’t contact a lot of the businesses.”

Still, 10 businesses were interested enough to apply—and now have been rewarded for their effort.

For Shawn Fitzpatrick, University Trophies & Awards owner—one of the inaugural 10 businesses—this was a unique opportunity to be recognized. He had worked with Long Beach Heritage in the past and was eager to participate in the program.

“We were used to doing things for others that are given recognition,” Fitzpatrick said.  “We don’t get recognized often, so for them to reach out and think of us was an honor in itself.”

Councilmember Daryl Supernaw and Long Beach Heritage honored University Trophies & Awards owner Shawn Fitzpatrick and his staff with a Legacy Business recognition Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2022. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

As its name suggests, University Trophies & Awards has made plaques, trophies and other types of awards since it opened in 1970. The business has also made the plaques for the Legacy Business Program, which he says is an exciting opportunity to give back to the community.

Another business that has joined the program is Tuttle Cameras, which opened in 1946 and was one of the first shops in Long Beach that offered overnight photography development. Tuttle Cameras owner Eric Vitwar, who took over the business from the Tuttles in 1998, said he did not remember having any issues with the application process.

“They came in and we talked, and I want to say I filled it out like a week later,” Vitwar said.

While the first cohort was recognized all at once, the subcommittee said that there will not be a traditional application cycle moving forward. With the program now in the public eye, the subcommittee and Long Beach Heritage hope other businesses will be inspired to submit applications and make their cases to be recognized as legacy businesses.

Applications are open year-round, and the subcommittee estimates it will take about one month for submissions to be approved by the Long Beach Heritage Board of Directors.

There are no hard deadlines, although the subcommittee members noted that they hope to print a legacy business guide—which will include a list and map of the recognized businesses—after the program grows a bit, possibly when 25 businesses have been honored.

The organization hopes to distribute these brochures through sources like the Long Beach Conventions & Visitors Bureau, Architecture Week, at hotel and motel lobbies and in the businesses themselves, among other avenues.

The subcommittee is also working on a website that will host a map of the legacy businesses in a similar manner to the San Francisco site. There is no current set date for its release, but subcommittee members said it could be up in a month or two.

Businesses interested in applying for the program can do so online at  lbheritage.org/legacybusiness.

Christian May-Suzuki is a reporter at the Long Beach Business Journal.