Dozens of Bixby Knolls business owners gathered inside Lola’s Mexican Cuisine Wednesday morning for a question-and-answer session with Long Beach Mayor Rex Richardson regarding the state of business in the city.

The event is the first of seven or eight similar meetings the mayor has planned over the next few months as part of his “100 Businesses in 100 Days Tour.” Future events will include businesses from other areas of the city as an opportunity for owners to share their concerns directly with Richardson.

“Making sure that we have a mayor’s office that is able to engage ensures that there’s a flow of communication that goes from the public, the community, … to the (City Council) and the city management,” Richardson told the Business Journal after the event.

The main focus for business owners overall was safety, including pedestrian safety on the street and business safety from break-ins.

Dutch’s Brewhouse owner Jason Van Fleet noted that cars frequently speed down Atlantic Avenue, which has caused numerous serious accidents.

“During the pandemic, it just became even more of a speedway,” Van Fleet said to the mayor. He noted that the temporary road diet, which saw one lane on each side of the street closed, helped while it was in place.

In response, Richardson recounted his years-long effort as the 9th District councilmember to get a major overhaul of Artesia Boulevard approved and funded—a $36 million project that broke ground last week. He said the whole of Bixby Knolls must come together, be on the same page and engage with the city’s Public Works Department, especially Director Eric Lopez.

Long Beach Mayor Rex Richardson, right, walks Atlantic Avenue in Bixby Knolls with 5th District Councilmember Megan Kerr and Bixby Knolls Business Improvement Association Executive Director Blair Cohn Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

Van Fleet said he is in favor of bringing back the road diet permanently, including introducing bike lanes. Some residents and business owners, though, complained about a decrease in parking amid the road diet, Van Fleet said.

“Parking isn’t an issue. It should be about saving lives,” he said. “And getting people back out walking to support the restaurants and the stores. We could get more retail shops up here if we had more walking business, if we slow the damn street down.”

An increase in the city’s unhoused population was another focus of conversation, with Wylie Strout, a Laserfiche employee, saying it has caused safety concerns in the area due to random, violent behavior by those who have mental health or addiction issues.

Richardson noted his administration’s dedication to putting homelessness on the forefront of its agenda, but he also said that when it comes to mental health services, the city is almost entirely at the will of the county.

“We have to work through the providers that LA County selects to operate within our city, and there’s not a lot of requirements for them to coordinate directly with our city,” Richardson said, adding that city staff is actively engaged with county and state officials for better solutions.

The difficulty of working with various city departments was another shared concern in terms of attracting new businesses anywhere in the city. Van Fleet and The Merchant owner Mike Gillespie noted that it took them years to open their businesses in Long Beach due to various delays within the Development Services Department as well as with the Health and Fire departments.

“People talk to each other,” Kelly Bray, an independent contractor with the Bixby Knolls Business Improvement Association, said during the forum. “I know one person who told a friend if he wants to open a business here, it’s not going to be easy. I wonder how many (businesses) we’re losing even before they start.”

Long Beach Mayor Rex Richardson introduces himself to Bixby Knolls business owners during a forum Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

Richardson said his time working in the private sector taught him the value of “ease, speed and predictability” for businesses entering a new market. He said his office is dedicated to improving city processes in various departments to attract more businesses away from other cities.

Following the event, Cohn said it’s important for business owners to feel like someone at city hall is listening to them, which is why he pushed for Bixby Knolls to host the kickoff of the “100 Businesses tour.” But answering some questions is not enough, according to Cohn.

“We’ll stay on top of it,” Cohn said after the event. “It’s part of the (business improvement district’s) responsibility to hold (officials) accountable.”

Van Fleet, for his part, said he appreciates the face time with the mayor, but he echoed Cohn’s sentiment that words without action mean nothing.

“The city has been known to ‘listen to us’ but then forget all about (us),” he told the Business Journal after the event. “But I’m very excited to work with someone new, who possibly has some fresh ideas.”

Brandon Richardson is a reporter and photojournalist for the Long Beach Post and Long Beach Business Journal.