About eight years ago, city staff brought together the leaders of local business associations and business improvement districts to begin a dialogue. At the time – as recalled by Blair Cohn, executive director of the Bixby Knolls Business Improvement Association – the city was pushing for the groups to work together to promote shopping locally and advance the idea of Long Beach as a network of unique districts and neighborhoods.


The result was the formation of the Long Beach Council of Business Associations (COBA) – an organization including the city’s business improvement districts, as well as business groups like the On Broadway Business Association and the Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce.


In an interview at Berlin Bistro in the East Village, Kerstin Kansteiner, the restaurant’s owner and board chair of the 4th Street Business Improvement Association, and Kraig Kojian, president and CEO of the Downtown Long Beach Associates, joined Cohn to reflect on how COBA has evolved and its direction moving forward.


Before COBA was formed, the three knew each other, but not in a formal context related to their positions in the business community. “We maybe ran across each other, but we had never met as entities and compared notes and talked,” Kansteiner recalled.


The organization began holding fairly informal meetings where members of the business community could come share their experiences and identify common interests and problems.


“In the beginning, we were focused on smaller things, like advertisement,” Kansteiner said. “We were given the opportunity to meet, and we had to find our mission.” In the early days of COBA, city staff members were often invited to meetings to explain processes relating to business operations, she explained.


“It was pretty open in the beginning,” Cohn said. “Just a what’s going on kind of a thing. It was: How are you doing with the planning department? How are you doing with [the] health [department]?”


Now, the group has agendas for its meetings, and it has evolved to serve as an influencer with the City of Long Beach and to offer guidance to the greater business community, Kansteiner explained. For example, COBA’s members, particularly its long-time ones, are a resource to communities trying to establish business improvement districts, she noted.


Kojian said part of the organization’s purpose is to maintain communication between business districts and associations to understand what individual areas are experiencing and how that affects businesses throughout the city. “[We’re] trying to make Long Beach truly business friendly – and not just use that term as a catchall phrase but truly elevate the discussion so we understand what we’re doing to make it business friendly,” Kojian said of the association’s focus.


“We have the red phone. The red phone [means] we can call the departments directly or the city manager directly and get [a business] dislodged from the pile,” Cohn said. “But we say, it shouldn’t be like that. . . . Mrs. Jones should be able to open a shop and be able to get answers and accurate information, and not the run around. Things should be timely. We’re trying to push that.”


COBA’s relationship with the city is an open one, according to the three business leaders. “They have a seat at the table. They understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, and they’re part of that conversation,” Kojian said. “And I don’t think anything we do catches them off guard.”


Cohn agreed. “We can’t bite the hand that feeds. There have never been witch hunts. It’s just been trying to have dialogue,” he said.


One of the first issues COBA tackled for its constituents was advocating for reform within the city’s health department. “We really went after the health department early on,” Cohn said. Restaurant owners and vendors for events were frequently given a curt negative response to requests, rather than receiving an explanation of alternatives, he said. Permits and fees from the health department were also too costly, he added.


“Their goal should not be to punish us, but to be an educational tool,” Kansteiner said of the health department.


“Since the conversation, they’ve changed the pricing for nonprofits and across the board,” Cohn noted. Kansteiner, who owns both Berlin Bistro and Portfolio Coffeehouse on 4th Street, experienced the transition personally. “They have changed their staff from the top down. Everyone has a completely different agenda,” she said. “We see it as a benefit now. . . . We actually sit down at a table and have a long visit. So it’s very educational.”


The city also listened to COBA on one of the largest issues it has ever tackled – one that is still ongoing – raising the minimum wage. When the City of Los Angeles raised its own minimum wage, COBA’s members realized Long Beach would likely be next and went to work surveying local businesses for their input and to put together their own proposal.


“From the very beginning, we said we weren’t going to say no to minimum wage,” Kojian said. “We felt as though it was time to have a very earnest and open discussion to determine what is really good for the city economically. We never said, no, we don’t want to talk about it or listen. In fact, we encouraged the open conversation.”


COBA’s recommendations were included in a report by the city’s economic development commission – of which Cohn is a member – to the city council. Ultimately, however, the city council passed a proposal asking an ordinance to be drafted that would put the city on a pathway to a $15 minimum wage by 2021.


Although COBA was heard, there were wealthy interests with strong numbers involved in the discussions who distracted from the conversation the organization was trying to have, interjecting unrelated issues like wage theft into the equation, the three leaders explained. “The topic of discussion was kind of hijacked and issues are being brought up that have nothing to do with it,” Kansteiner explained.


“Long Beach is a city of lots of small businesses,” Kansteiner said. “Is that something that small business can sustain or not? We’re not talking about the McDonald’s or the Burger King that have a large machinery [in place]. . . . And that conversation was difficult to have with forces that wanted to present a different story.”


Cohn recalled how at economic development commission meetings he would keep track of the types of businesses scrutinized by the long lines of public speakers advocating for a minimum wage increase and noted that they were almost entirely fast food chains.


As a business owner herself, Kansteiner was unhappy with the outcome of the council’s vote in January and is now left wondering if her businesses’ model will continue to work with a higher minimum wage.


“My thing is the left hand versus the right hand,” Cohn said. “The city says [it wants] economic development. We want business here. We want to be business friendly. And then they overcharge for an event or for a license or to open [a business]. . . .  So which one is it? Are we, or are we not?”


The council voted on July 12 to delay drafting the minimum wage ordinance for 30 days after the city attorney cited complications related to city employee labor group negotiations, as well as conflicts with the state’s new minimum wage law.


Although COBA is still discussing how it can play a role at this point, Kojian said the easy solution would be to scrap the city ordinance in favor of the state’s new rules. “Long Beach’s timeline is more expeditious than the state’s. So from a business standpoint, I feel as though we could continue to remain competitive if, in fact, all playing fields are equal,” he explained.


Moving forward, COBA is continuing to work with the city’s Innovation Team, funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, on its development of an online tool called BizPort that is designed to help businesses through the process of starting up in Long Beach, according to Cohn.


COBA is also advocating for the city to create a department or division to market itself. “We’re talking about a promotional arm selling itself to itself. Reaching the far east corner of the city so they know what’s going on here,” Cohn said.


“The city itself is doing, at least in our eyes, a poor job of marketing to its own folks that live here,” Kansteiner said. “Let’s not even talk about the folks on the outside [of the city]. . . . Until we can look at ourselves and be proud of it, then how can we promote the city to somebody else?”


Ultimately, the role of the BIDs, and of COBA, is to “provide a customer service to our stakeholders,” Kojian said. “When a business owner is making the decision of where to open up their establishment, we have to first realize that they have a lot of choices. So how do we make those choices easier for him or her? Are there barriers, or are there doors that are open?” he reflected. “We can’t control the economy. But when that economy starts to squeeze business out, we want to leave that window of opportunity open as long as possible.”