When the Long Beach Council of Business Associations formed six years ago it was the first time business leaders from different districts came together to compare notes.
That collaboration has resulted in the sharing of best practices and bettered the relationship between business improvement districts (BIDs) and the city, attendees agree. They say COBA, especially with some of its most recent efforts, is helping the city become more business friendly.
COBA was an idea developed and realized by former Economic Development Bureau Manager Robert Swayze, and the group has been gaining momentum ever since. The monthly COBA meetings are open and regularly attended by representatives from the major business improvement districts — from the largest Downtown Long Beach Associates to the newest Uptown PBID — as well as smaller groups of business owners or associations, including Cambodia Town.
Blair Cohn, executive director of the Bixby Knolls Business Improvement Association, has been attending COBA meetings since the beginning. He said he is excited to see the progress being made.
“Robert Swayze and his group initiated it because they wanted, as part of economic development, to bring us all together,” he explained. “None of us knew what the agenda was or what was going to happen. The first couple of meetings were hosted by Robert and his team and then they backed off. They said, ‘You guys steer this and the city will take a back seat and be involved however you want.’”
Cohn said those who attended the meetings began to get to know one another personally and professionally and discovered that their neighborhoods and businesses often faced some of the same challenges. Working together, sharing their concerns with city staff, they are beginning to create change. COBA also surveyed business owners and compiled those results in 2012.
“We were able to give the city feedback from the ground level,” Cohn said. “None of what we were doing was about a witch-hunt, not an us versus them sort of thing, it was about coming together and creating a partnership between us and City Hall.”
Dede Rossi, executive director of the Belmont Shore Business Association, shared similar sentiments. She has been attending COBA meetings for years.
“The first thing that really happened was that we were able to have meetings with the Health Department and they really listened to us and made some changes,” she said. “We all came into an understanding about how we could work better together.”
Besides improving relations with the city’s Health Department, Rossi said COBA worked in collaboration with Long Beach Development Services to streamline the business licensing and permitting process at City Hall. Informational brochures for prospective business owners also were printed.
But COBA members say they want to do more to encourage new businesses to open in the city. They stress that they want to see the city provide tools that will make the process of starting a new venture as easy and straightforward as possible.
That’s why the organization, as soon as the new City Council is sworn in on Tuesday, will be pushing city officials to find out more about an online interface called OpenCounter. The program, which walks prospective business owners through the city’s permitting process (including projected costs), was originally built through a partnership between the city of Santa Cruz and Code for America and is supported by the Knight Foundation.
“OpenCounter could make it easier for people to go through the city’s permitting process,” Cohn said. “We’ve found that sometimes city departments are working in silos, and we are saying, ‘Look, can we correct this and change the perception of the city so that people can come here with ease?’ It’s a big-picture economic situation.”
He added that city employees, some of whom have been pitched the idea, have all responded well. Cohn said no one has shot them down and COBA will be pressing the use of OpenCounter, or a similar technology, as well as more business-friendly practices at City Hall, especially now that there will be so many new faces on the City Council.
Rossi, who interviewed business leaders in Santa Cruz about their experience with OpenCounter, supports the city looking into the interface as a way to help make the permitting process easier and more transparent.
“It would save the city money in the long run, plus the program is a low-cost investment,” Rossi said. “It would cut back on people just showing up at City Hall not knowing what they are doing. They could, instead, start the process online at home.”
She said the program might also help alert BIDs to the businesses opening in their districts since that communication isn’t always good. Often, she said, prospective business owners don’t have a lot of knowledge about what a BID is or what benefits come with that.
COBA also recently launched their own website, something that is still a work in progress; it is meant to one day serve as a resource for business owners to access OpenCounter and other helpful tools. Rossi said communication needs to continue to improve between new businesses and the city and the BIDs, and she believes technology can help with that.
Jim Fisk, the city’s business improvement districts manager, praised the efforts of those who regularly attend COBA meetings. He attends the meetings as a representative of the city and answers questions for the business representatives.
“It’s a terrific organization,” Fisk said. “I’m there to straddle this very delicate kind of balance where I work for the city and represent the BIDs too. I’m an advocate for them, and I have seen first-hand that the work they are doing is valuable for all businesses in the city. Everyone benefits from this.”
For more details about COBA, visit www.cobalb.com.
Ashleigh Ruhl can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.