Blair Cohn: Keep Making Noise • Long Beach Post

9:30am | Rumors abound about a secret lab where scientists are applying advanced genetic techniques to create multiple copies of Blair Cohn. His boundless energy, his seemingly inexhaustible positivity, his penchant for direct engagement with community, and his abundance of good ideas have transformed Bixby Knolls from a sleepy cultural backwater to a thrumming hub of good times. 

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Blair is the Executive Director of the Bixby Knolls Business Improvement Association and, as such, was brought in to improve business.  I asked him how the transformation began.

Blair: First I had to learn the lay of the land, read the archived files, talk to business owners, board members, and city staff to get the big picture of Bixby Knolls. Then I set out on a 3-phase approach. The first goal was to re-activate the neighborhood and connect the residents to the business corridors. We’ve got a good start with this with our Strollers, Literary Society, Supper Club, Community Happy Hours, Community Parties, First Fridays, and Car Show.

The second goal was to work on the “appearance” of the district. With the help of the Long Beach Redevelopment Agency (RDA) we have received funds over the last two years for a number of line items that will help speed up the improvements.  The RDA brought back the consultants, HyettPalma, who had been here in 1993 to make recommendations, but the report was just shelved. So, when they came back, we created a “to do” list of sorts.

I had asked the RDA for funds where we could go to property & business owners to offer our support, in the form of replacing signage, painting the building, and replacing landscaping. We do an 80-20 program, up to $2000 per project, where the BKBIA will pay 80% of the cost of the project up to $2000, and the property or business owner pays 20% or the balance after $2000. This has helped tremendously.

We have had 3 buildings painted with 5 more in the queue. We’ve replaced a sign with more in the queue. We’ve planted trees; we’ve helped to fund our big Boy Scout projects, where the scouts use a project to get their Eagle designation. The momentum with this 2nd phase is in full force and, to keep things activated, all of our regular monthly programs are in motion. 

Phase 3 is where we are right now. While all of these other things are happening, we are now reaching out to do the recruitment of new businesses to fill the vacancies. These are the broad strokes of the 3 phases, but there are lots of other things going on as well. Lots of community engagement; working with the Police Department to keep things safe; working with the Cal Heights group to keep things clean.

Sander: In getting the lay of the land, how much time did you spend speaking with residents and, in doing so, what did you learn?

Blair: I learned that there were many people, in different parts of the neighborhood, doing things such as organizing events, or who had ideas for events and programs. Also, I learned that there was a big disconnect between the residents and businesses. People got in their cars and went elsewhere. We had to give them a reason to support the local area. Lots of people wanted an active, vibrant neighborhood but needed a way to tie it together. I saw our role as being the conduit to connect the area together.

Sander: And what about the businesses?  Aside from more customers, what were they looking for?

Blair: Obviously they wanted more foot traffic and business, but I think they also wanted more of a connection with the BKBIA, and to feel like someone was looking out for the best interest of the whole district: Their individual needs, and district-wide needs. They needed a resource to help with promotion, facade improvements, etc.

Sander: Is there a “master plan” in place for guiding development in the area? 

Blair: The HyettPalma executive summary is a big part of that. Also, the Board of Directors had a general idea of how they wanted to direct things but, when I came in, I said we were going to change things up, not “do what we’ve always done.” The new energy, and willingness to try new things, was very timely with RDA bringing in the consultants. Councilwoman Gabelich was instrumental in this happening. Gabelich and I work very well together and both see the greater good, so she welcomed my new energy and ideas and she led the charge, with the RDA, to revisit the “plan” and get things focused and in motion.

Sander: Have there been any municipal hurdles that you’ve had to jump?

Blair: Nothing significant.  I feel extremely fortunate to have the support of the Council, City Manager, RDA, BKBIA Board of Directors, and City staff. The only real hurdles have been resources, meaning how fast can Public Works come and trim our trees. Things like that. Also, I try to make sure that the Council office knows what we’re doing, and that there is support before moving ahead. I also run things by my board, but they are plenty supportive.

Sander: One of the significant components to the success of First Fridays is the EXPO building.  Can you share just a bit of background about where it was when you came on the scene, and how you brought it to where it is now?

Blair: I knew that the residents were wanting and needing an entertainment venue for the area. This was obvious after our first few parties at the LB Petroleum Club. Bixby Knolls doesn’t have a theater or other official entertainment venues like other parts of the city so, when Expo was vacated and the RDA bought the building, which sits right next door to my office, I thought it could be a cool place to do events. It was in bad shape when the furniture folks moved out, but I asked RDA and Pat West about holding an event there.

Right at this time Helen Borgers, from the Long Beach Shakespeare Company and KKJZ, came to me and said that LBSC needed another place to rehearse so they could better activate their Goad Theatre space to help sustain the company. At first I didnt even consider Expo because I had heard that the RDA was going to knock it down in full, or partially.  I went to Robert Swayze, then the newly appointed head of Economic Development & Cultural Affairs, and brought Helen to talk about possible venues around town he knew about that might work for LBSC. He said “well why not use the Expo building next door to you?”

We got permission to put a one-off event in the space: “Jazz: the Ides of March.” The City’s Special Events department permitted the event, KKJZ promoted it with Helen, over 500 people showed up, and had a great afternoon of music.  We asked local artists to hang their work to decorate the space. The RDA had repaired the space to get it up and running safely. It was obvious we could do things in the space. 

We negotiated a short term lease with the RDA, and started, slowly, to program the space. The LBSC was in there. Local artist Doug Orr created Gallery Expo. There’s also the Jones Gallery led by Michael Lee Kirkand. Last October the Arts Council did Long Beach Exposed, their first GLOBAL event, there. We’ve also had youth drama & art camps, three different theater groups rehearsing in the space, a comedy improv group in there weekly for classes, and the BK Literary Society meets at there.

We started to use Expo as a showcase on First Fridays. Putting together the right team, and doing the right programming, has really helped.

Sander: In addition to LBSC, Gallery Expo, and Jones Gallery, you’ve also been developing other strategic relationships, like Justin Rudd’s “Say CHEESE Long Beach” 24 Hour Photo Contest.  What else is in the works?

Blair: Well, the big production of A Christmas Carol is coming up, and we’re very excited about Long Beach Opera coming, in January, to do a production of Luigi Cherubini’s Medea in the space!

Sander: I think it also important to mention that the Expo space, and First Fridays, has inspired other local businesses to step up their games, as it were.  For example, Nino’s Italian Restaurant has been hosting monthly art exhibitions, live music, and DJs.  I’ve seen bands playing at The Factory, and Michelle Mangione is doing her Songwriter Showcase at Mirage Mediterranean Grill.  Are more businesses becoming involved?

Blair: First Fridays as a whole has grown because we’ve had a coordinator help with the event all month long, and to engage the businesses to participate. Expo serves as one of the stops on the walk/tour, but Nino’s has been at it for years, and has really stepped up their game. We have been going door to door, getting more businesses involved, and explaining the importance of First Fridays to the district and to THEM as a business. As the energy has grown so have the number of participating businesses. Expo adds the full art component to the night. Having a coordinator, and some extra funds to help grow the event, really helps.

Sander: After all is said and done, do you think the residents are more connected to the business corridor?

Blair: Yes, its much better than it was nearly three years ago, but we’re going to keep making noise until everyone hears about our events.

This month’s First Friday, taking place on November 5th, will feature a special celebration: 40 Years of BMX!  Evidently, the sport of bicycle motorcross was born right here in Long Beach. Gallery Expo will be hosting its annual Dia De Lo Muertos exhibit, and Georgie’s Place will be hosting local band, Majic Bullet Theory. Also, starting at 5:30, Mayor Foster will be giving a special reading at the Dana Library Community Room.

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