Not on the Agenda: Real Help for Beverly Hills Small Businesses

Small Business Task Force report coverLet’s follow up on our previous post about our lagging bicycle rack program with a look at our city’s Small Business Task Force. Intended to brainstorm assistance to the city’s less-glossy business districts, strips dominated by small retailers, the Task Force was from opening meeting to final report was dominated by the city’s big business interests and, behind them, the Chamber of Commerce. Not on the agenda: tangible steps like encouraging cycling to boost the small-business bottom line.

The Small Business Task Force was was created in mid-2011 by then-Mayor Barry Brucker to identify barriers to attracting and retaining small businesses in Beverly Hills. The Task Force defines a small business as “one that is independently owned and operated, is organized for profit, and is not dominant in its field,” according to a 2012 staff report that summarized the Task Force’s findings. The problem was that those businesses were particularly vulnerable to a consumer pullback. “The concern is primarily focused on the high retail vacancy the City has experienced in certain commercial areas as a result of the economic downturn,” the staff report said.

Given that emphasis, the Task Force would address the city’s peripheral business districts, including South Beverly Drive, South Robertson, Little Santa Monica west of Wilshire, and the general southeast area. These strips provide everyday services that long ago fled the triangle: cafes, shoe repair, newsstands, and the like. They could survive, but they’re just not getting the foot traffic they need in our outlying areas.

But the Task Force found that they’re getting too much of another kind: vehicular traffic. To those inclined to view congestion as a reflection of economic well-being, these shops should be doing fine. But vehicular traffic is no substitute for foot traffic (unless you own a fast food drive-thru). For most retailers vehicular congestion is a hassle factor: it does not add to the bottom line and may even sap it if people don’t want to bother with the traffic and parking hassles.

Indeed the Task Force found that “insufficient parking structures and limited inexpensive parking” was a drag on revenues. It discourages visitors, findings suggested. “Lack of pedestrian ambiance and experience” (as the report observed) might recommend them to Westfield’s Century City mall, where the sidewalks always glimmer and parking is always available.

But is this the best lens through which to look at small business challenges in Beverly Hills? Is it the only lens?

It may be the best lens if you are a business triangle-based brand-name global retailer.  From your perspective, then, the Beverly Hills brand remains strong with the proper marketing. And if you’ve got real estate interests in the triangle, a few taxpayer dollars tossed in as a financial incentive to businesses can’t hurt either. For these vested interests, the Chamber programs hold appeal. They are the Chamber’s membership base after all.

But if you’re a small shop in peripheral district in a tough economy, will a Chamber marketing program make a difference? Will you see ‘incentives’ flowing from City Hall? Instead you’ll probably hope that your trusty customers keep coming while you figure out how to boost local foot traffic. Not the kind tapped by East Coast and Asian Chamber junkets, perhaps, but the folks within a few miles. The households that receive weekly coupons and the like. Here the Chamber is little help. (Scroll down.)

The small shops are the real small businesses that this Task Force should have tapped for guidance. And if they didn’t suggest it, an enlightened Chamber should tell them that there exists a population of ‘shop local’ enthusiasts ready to bike over who need only to feel welcomed should the city make the trip safer and more convenient. We know they exist because every day we see bicycles latched to meter posts near cafés or coffee shops, banks and city buildings.

Two-wheeled potential customers are totally overlooked in the Task Force report. Except for one recommendation: the Task Force suggested a “pilot program” to consider art bike racks for South Beverly Drive. Heck we can’t disagree! For years we’ve begged the city to install bicycle racks there. But we’ve found no partner in the office of our Transportation division. And that recommendation appears to have gone nowhere too.

But the Task Force was thinking small. What about making entire districts attractive to those who ride? We won’t clog the streets or circle for a meter or demand a $50,000 public parking garage spot. Local commerce is all the rage from Portland to Brooklyn and these cities make their districts bike-friendly with racks and such.

We need not even look that far: City of Long Beach found that a few bicycle racks, some pavement striping, and a discounts program for two-wheeled shoppers & coffee-sippers returned real dividends to their formerly moribund peripheral small business districts. They doubled-down with a real mobility coordinator for the purpose (instead of throwing money at their Chamber for more ‘pilot programs.’)

But our Task Force didn’t suggest any concrete steps that would attract local buyers who would arrive by bike. It said nothing about bike-friendly infrastructure or signage to make the trip safe. It didn’t even call for bicycle racks citywide to make bike parking more convenient for all businesses. (And two years on we’re no better off in that regard.) That’s because the Chamber is not in the bike-parking business; rather it is in the business of ginning up marketing programs. Then it goes hat-in-hand to the city for funding and takes a percentage.

Perhaps another reason why ‘bike-friendly’ never crossed the collective Task Force mind is that the collective perspective of Chamber interests is eternally framed by the windshield. In that sense the only remedy to lagging shop revenues is more car parking.

‘Small Businesses’ Task Force or Vested Interests’ Lobbying Vehicle?

Look over the Small Business Task Force Report and the recommendations (i.e., “solutions”) read like a Chamber wish list: storefront beautification, business improvement districts, and the perennial favorite: “Improve the efficiency of the City’s development review and permitting process.” Streamline it! the Chamber urges.

Presumably the Chamber was also behind the inventory of case studies, the suggested tax analysis, the financial incentive program and the ever-favorite “cost of doing business comparison.” For good measure the city should support the Chamber’s eNewsletter too, the Task Force agreed. But who’s reading it?

But it’s not just the Chamber; there’s something in the report’s recommendations for every for every business triangle-based power player. There’s just not much there for a small shop struggling to pull new foot traffic across the transom. Why would a Task Force ostensibly focused on small businesses needs, one concerned with the health of our business districts, puts so much energy into programs to benefit the business triangle?

There’s no mystery here: look who’s on the Task Force. The Chamber had its man Alex Stettinski in there. And there were a few old-time Beverly Hills power-players there too, like planning commissioner Brian Rosenstein and former Mayor Joe Tilem. Real estate interests were well-represented on the Task Force. In addition to Tilem there was real estate big-gorilla CBRE’s own man, Bill Wiley. Then you had Arnold Rosenstein of New Pacific Realty; Tom Korey of First Property Realty; and a couple of under-the-radar land use lawyer-types like Lee Silver and Mitch Dawson. They fleshed out the real estate industry bench. On a 15 member task force!

Some of these folks swing a big stick. Tilem is also a well-connected attorney. Wiley is also Chair of the Conference and Visitors Bureau (CVB) Board and Rosenstein helms his family’s (former May Company) real estate empire. (Rosenstein is expected to run for City Council in 2015, by the way.)

How many of those folks do the bidding of the small business community? Isn’t there anybody from our small shops? Not Bruce Schulman from Mercedes Benz, a global brand, of course. But there was Jodie Robinson from South Beverly retailer Anne Michelle; Bobbie Greenfield of the Beverly Hills Brownie Company; and Shawn Saeedian of the Beverly Hills Market on Crescent. Just 3 of 15 members are from the sector that most needed the assist.

(Chairing the Task Force was councilmember Julian Gold. More recently, from the Council dais, Dr. Gold questioned the legitimacy of another Mayor-appointed body, the Sunshine Task Force. This good-government advisory body is the creation of Mayor John Mirisch, and often they disagree on significant issues. But to impugn an appointed task force when the guy chaired his own Mayor-appointed task force? Chutzpah! Full disclosure: Better Bike is a member of the Sunshine Task Force.)

Identifying a “Barrier” Suitable for a “Solution”

With the Task Force membership it’s not surprising that the report’s findings reflected real estate interests. But the real take-away is that Task Force seems to have identified the appropriate barriers that beg favored solutions. To legitimate the recommendation to create and fund a buy local program, for example, the report uncovered a “local preference barrier.” One of the “solutions” on offer would have the city back a Chamber-run American Express branded ‘Small Business Saturday’ program (which it did). (We’re surprised that Amex didn’t have a representative on the Task Force. But then they didn’t need one.)

Other recommendations included a proposal to city-sponsor a real estate broker roundtable. But who’s funding small retailer strategy sessions? Another would fund a ‘visitor experience’ program run by the CVB, including smartphone self-guided tours and  podcasts. Great for the triangle, we suppose, but who’s sponsoring small shop owners for social media promotion classes? Then there’s the proposed ‘financial incentive’ program, which would funnel money through the Chamber for ‘business retention.’ How many of our small shops would get that largesse?*

Shop Local: More Marketing, Little Substance

The one recommendation that did seem intended to lend a hand up (if not a handout) to our under-patronized small business districts was the Chamber’s Shop Local Program. The program went live in mid-2012 just as the Task Force wrapped up. (See – these guys got juice!) It tapped some of the same Task Force participants to volubly praise the Chamber’s effort in a promotional video for the Shop Local website. But it seems that there’s not a business represented in the video from anywhere outside the business triangle.

In fact the Chamber’s got so much juice that implementing the Task Force recommendations has topped the City Council’s priorities list for the past two years as an A-level priority:

Priorities 2013-14 excerpt

Priorities 2014-15 excerpt

Last year it only slipped down a notch behind Centennial brand-building. What about road safety for bike riders? Road safety literally doesn’t rank as a priority.

Promo video aside, what is there about this Shop Local program to recommend it to someone on the fence about making a trip to the local strip of shops on Robertson, Olympic or South Santa Monica? Certainly not the website. ‘Hot deals’ number only 24 (and 5 of them promote dentistry). The Chamber’s tweets don’t mention Shop Local anymore, and #mylocalchoice tweets petered out last April.

Mylocalchoice Twitter feed
The Shop Local program tweets just came to an end….

Even the posted news items went stale with an update last in August of 2013. So how does the Chamber mark success for this kind of initiative? Website? Check. Video? Check. Revenues increase? No check!

We’ll look more at it in an upcoming post, but suffice to say that this wan marketing effort is no substitute for tangible improvements that make commercial districts more welcoming. In Beverly Hills, ‘Shop Local’ is only a slogan, just like bicycle racks are more metaphor than reality.

We Can Do Better

Why not follow the lead of Long Beach? The city drafted a mission (“Promoting bicycling is a valuable and cost-effective strategy to improve a business’ bottom line”) and hired a coordinator, not a marketer, to craft programs and policies. The coordinator then created a set of guidelines for attracting two-wheeled visitors which was backed by the City Council with improvements like bike lanes, designated bike routes and signage. The city’s successful Bike Saturdays rewards program. It’s like our American Express ‘Small Business Saturday’ program but different. You know, it focuses on cycling and shuns the corporate advertisement.

And those ‘art racks’ our Task Force mentioned? Long Beach beat us to it. And not just a couple of racks either: the city installed them throughout their TEN ‘bike-friendly business districts.’ The kind Beverly Hills should have.

9400 South Santa MonicaThe Small Business Task Force is just the latest example of the Chamber taking our city for a ride. A couple of years before the Task Force, City Council approved a sweet deal for the Chamber: taxpayers would buy its old building on South Beverly and build it a brand-new, high-profile building at 9400 South Santa Monica Boulevard. The Mayor behind that agreement? Barry Brucker, the Mayor who appointed the Chamber-dominated Small Business Task Force. That’s how we roll in Beverly Hills!

*Not many. But those who rent in city-owned buildings do feel the love. And our city does own considerable real estate in the triangle. Want a steal on top-notch retail space in the richest triangle of commercial land in America? Rent from City of Beverly Hills. Not coincidentally, perhaps, at least two of the Small Business Task Force participants rent from the city: Beverly Hills Brownie and the Beverly Hills Market. The latter has before Council repeatedly for rent reductions – as have city tenants (and neighbors) Pioneer Hardware and Bouchon. Talk about business retention!

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