March 2008 Archives

Only in Downtown Ventura

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THERE ARE THINGS that happen to us every now and then which make us realize just how quirky and delightful this town really is.

My daughter and I are inveterate shoppers of Ventura's Downtown boutiques. Our favorite is Le Monde Emporium on Main Street, home to great fashion and equally great prices. It's located in an old building which has housed many businesses over the years.

Several months ago, while picking through the sales racks in the very upper reaches of the second story of the store, we heard an eerie noise coming from the wall. It was an odd kind of sound, sort of like somebody screaming at us from down a hall.

Returning to the bottom floor of the store, I mentioned the noise to the saleswoman. "I think you have a ghost up there," I joked.

"I know," she said, and proceeded to tell us about purses that fell off racks by themselves, merchandise which was found out of place overnight and a carpenter who "felt something pass right through him" when he was working on the upper floor.

In fun, I mentioned to the woman that I knew of a ghost hunter who lived in town and that maybe I could convince him to check the place out. Giggling, we walked out into the sunshine and ran smack into our local ghost hunter, Richard Senate, coming out of Tipps Thai Cuisine.

IT WAS FATE.

Now I know Richard a bit from the various local historical groups I am involved with. He's a delight and one of those folks who just makes life more interesting for the rest of us. If you haven't taken one of his ghost tours arranged through the City of Ventura, do it. He weaves interesting local historical tidbits in with the ghostliness and it's fascinating.

Richard, always amenable to a ghostly adventure, agreed to accompany us back to Le Monde. Once entering the door, he told us of the history of the building and of a certain spirit who has been making appearances in that very spot for years.

Now I'm not sure I really believe in all this stuff, but it's fun nonetheless. Where else but in Downtown Ventura would you get a ghost story thrown in with your shopping?

And it's just one more reason why I love this town.

On Saturday at 8 p.m., Richard Senate will be giving a special ghost tour of City Hall. Tickets can be purchased by calling Community Services at 658-4726. The tour will start promptly at 8 p.m.

A rally for our children

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SOMETIMES IT IS NECESSARY to go out of your comfort zone when it comes to advocating for what you believe in. Five years ago I, along with many other Ventura parents who had never been politically active before, formed a group called Save Our Schools to deal with impending education budget cuts. We raised money and later held a rally at the Ventura County Government Center that drew nearly 1,000 people.

Here we are five years later in the same leaky boat. I'm a true believer that every child deserves a chance to succeed and that it is our responsibility as a great and moral country to adequately fund public education. Our governor's current proposed cut of $4.8 billion to our schools fails to do that.

Our schools do miraculous things with the resources they have, and yet I am tired of hearing teachers tell me they spend thousands of their own dollars to buy supplies for their classrooms, that they can't adequately reach all children with these often huge class sizes and that there is not enough funding for P.E., libraries, counseling, technology, music and art. I am sick of watching our kids go door to door hawking cookie dough just to raise money for a field trip.

We are 46th in the nation in per pupil funding. This is all despite the fact that California has a relatively high capacity to fund its schools, as measured by per capita personal income. Our governor recently commissioned a group of experts to propose dramatic education reform. This committee concluded we need to spend another $10.5 billion in this state just to get the job done right. Yet our governor decided to take away $4 billion instead.

SO WE ARE GOING to rally again. Please join us on Friday, April 18 at the Buena High School Quad at 4 p.m. We're going to have a spirited event with many speakers including Assemblyman Pedro Nava, State Senate candidate Hannah-Beth Jackson, Congressional candidate Jill Martinez, Ventura County Superintendent of Schools Chuck Weis, Ventura Superintendent Trudy Arriaga, Ventura Board of Education President John Walker, Ventura Board of Education Vice President Mary Haffner, Ventura County Board of Education Trustee ML Peterson, VUEA President Stephen Blum, and California Teachers Association Secretary Dan Vaughn. We will announce more important speakers and entertainment as the event draws closer. Please check back here for updates.

I am calling on everyone who cares about the future of our children to attend this rally and show their support. We need to make our voices heard all the way up to Sacramento. It's that important.

The angel of Ventura

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MOST OF US DONATE a little to charity or we volunteer our time somewhere. We feel proud of ourselves knowing that we are helping to make the world a tiny bit better. But every now and then we come across someone who redefines our sense of humanity and makes our contributions seem small. I met someone like this last fall. Her name is Sherry Cash.

It is Sherry's volunteer mission to help the humans that many of us shun -- the homeless, drug- and alcohol-addicted souls who are an uneasy fixture in our Downtown. Since 2003 she's shuttled them to doctor's appointments and homeless shelters. She buys them clothes, helps them sign up for medical and social services, drives them to detox centers and, most of all, she's been a friend when there was nobody else.

Getting these folks off the streets and to a place where they can help themselves is her goal. "That's so exciting for me -- when people start taking care of themselves," she said.

I recently spent a sunny Tuesday morning with Sherry. Her mission that day was to get medicine for a homeless woman who spends most of her days in Plaza Park. The woman can often be found crouching on the sidewalk, a position, Sherry explained, which is comfortable for her because she had been beaten and her hips did not heal properly. "Everyone's given up on her and that's exactly why I don't," Sherry told me.

Ghosts from the past haunt Sherry a bit -- a childhood spent with alcoholic family members, nights spent sleeping in a car and, most poignantly, a brother who died a year and a half ago after a life of alcoholism and homelessness.

BUT SHERRY REMAINS unfailingly upbeat and has had great successes. She tells the story of one man who was in the last stages of alcoholism and living in the park. "His stomach was distended, he'd lost control of his bowels. ... Now he's home with his brother, six months sober."

She's proud of the recent strides Ventura has made to help end homelessness and has volunteered for every effort. There is the Ventura Social Services Task Force, of which she's on the steering committee; new is the Sober Network, an effort to get alcoholics and drug addicts the help they need. The city has also joined forces with the county in the 10-Year Strategy to End Homelessness.

"We've advanced so far that now people are talking about us," she said.

Sherry is especially proud of the new One Stop Center adjacent to the Ventura County Medical Center and gave me a tour. "I could just cry. Isn't this heaven?" she exclaimed while looking around the room at the various stations set up to help people find medical, alcohol and drug, housing, and social services.

Kate Mills, the program administrator for the county's Health Care for Homeless program, said most visitors to the center, open every Tuesday from 10 a.m.- 1 p.m., are looking for housing. "Medical is low on the list. They're trying to get to a safe environment."

Mills praised Sherry's efforts. "I think she knows everybody. People who have problems turn to her." But she and others worry a bit about their friend. "She stretches herself really thin. If she's not here (at the One Stop Center), she's in the park."

Sherry's volunteer workload has been lightened since the city recently hired Ken Belden to do outreach to the homeless population Downtown. She dreams of opening a detox center like Santa Barbara's for chronic alcoholics. But as long as there are people in need, Sherry will be there.

"Mother Theresa said 'Walk out your back door,' " she explained.

Somewhere Mother Theresa is smiling at Sherry Cash.

For further information about the Ventura Social Services Task Force, call (805) 212-4856. You can donate to the Ventura Homeless Prevention Fund via the United Way. Make a check payable to UWVC/VHPF and mail to: United Way of Ventura County, 1317 Del Norte, Suite 100, Camarillo, CA 93010.

The real facts about Public Art

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THE SPECTACLE of the Bus Home sculpture at the forlorn north end of our mall, with its fancifully twisted form now giving way to rust and deterioration, has been a lightning rod of sorts for public criticism of the way our city government operates.

It's taken on the proportions of an urban myth with people crying out incorrectly "The city wasted millions on that sculpture!" I've tackled this topic before in the comments section of this blog, but after reading yet another incorrect accounting of our city's Public Art Program recently, I decided it deserved a blog entry of its own.

Facts: Bus Home cost $164,000, of which the artist was paid a design fee of $42,000. The cost of the entire Bus Transfer Center at the north end of the mall was approximately $2.2 million. This includes bus shelters, the restrooms, bicycle racks and lockers, an information kiosk, lighting, drinking fountains, public art, and landscaping.

The inclusion of a public art piece at the site made the city eligible for a federal grant for the project, paying for the inclusion of public restrooms. Bus Home is inarguably in need of repair these days due to faulty preparation of the piece before painting. The city has recovered $80,000 from the original contractor and fabricator for repairs.

I HAVE A BIT OF A LOVE-HATE view of the city's Public Art Program. There are pieces in the collection which I adore. Of particular note are Larissa Strauss' wonderful mosaic at Marina Park, the top-notch municipal art collection at City Hall, the Streetscape Mural Project, the upcoming Tortilla Flats mural and the "Making Lemonade" sculpture at Thille Park.

My trouble with the program comes in here: The funding mechanism for the projects is so widely misunderstood that I sometimes wonder if the many benefits of having a Public Art Program are outweighed by the often negative public perception that comes with it.

Here's a lesson in Public Art Funding 101: Ventura's Public Art Program was enacted in 1991. It is an actual ordinance allocating 2 percent of eligible Capital Improvement Project (CIP) costs for the commissioning of artist services. Specifically excluded by the Public Art Ordinance are street resurfacing and water and sewer line replacement projects.

The money comes from specific CIP funds and cannot legally be used to pay for police and fire personnel, a suggestion I often hear in the community. (They are paid through the General Fund.) Money which comes from golf fees can only be used for golf areas, such as "The Big Swing" sculpture at the golf course. Sewer and water fees can only go for projects related to sewer and water projects, thus the "Harbor Wetlands" project near the treatment plant, etc.

So the Public Art Fund could never go for police and fire salaries. Now the council could choose to suspend the 1991 ordinance, but the money would only go to Capital Improvement Projects, never to police and fire.

There is a very small amount of money from the General Fund which sometimes goes to Public Art. Last year it was $7,231, according to City Manager Rick Cole.

OK, ARE YOUR EYES GLAZED OVER by that long-winded explanation? Exactly. I think there are only a handful of citizens who actually understand this funding mechanism. So when the city is strapped by a bad economy as it is now, and looks for ways to fund fire and police through new taxes and fees, the cry goes out: "The city wastes money on art. Use that money instead." But the vast majority is locked in by law for capital improvements only.

I asked City Public Art Supervisor Denise Sindelar about the program. She likened it to the Works Progress Administration projects of the 1930s -- "architectural design that is enhanced by an artist's touch."

Ventura's 1991 ordinance, Sindelar said, was actually passed in a period of massive city layoffs.

"They were saying, 'How can we get some art in the public realm without affecting police and fire funding?' This is the most effective way to incorporate it in the public environment."

Pierpont sand battle going to court

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An injunction and a complaint will be filed tomorrow (3-13-08) against the City of Ventura on behalf of the beachfront homeowners who have sustained damage from the mountains of sand piled up against their homes, according to Rosemary Icardo, one of the homeowners involved in the suit.

Icardo said the homeowners need immediate relief and can't wait for the controversial Sand Management Plan from the Coastal Commission to be implemented this fall. The plan stipulates work must be done between Sept. 15 and May 15 "to avoid impacting visitors, grunion and potential nesting birds." The Planning Commission isn't set to approve the Coastal Permit for the work to begin until May 6, leaving residents no choice but to wait to move sand.

"We need to move forward and September doesn't satisfy us," Icardo said. "I personally see this as a motivator for the city to come to the table with the Pierpont community and negotiate," she added.

Pierpont activist Murray Robertson told me he was hoping to see sand removal issues worked out so legal action wouldn't be necessary.

"That's your taxpayer dollars being wasted. Stupid, stupid, stupid."

Pierpont issues on hold

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A short update for those who have asked:

Pierpont homeowners didn't get all the answers they were looking for at Monday night's City Council meeting, but residents and city staff did have the opportunity to provide input on the Coastal Commission's controversial Sand Management Plan and who is responsible for paying to implement it.

City Attorney Ariel Calonne weighed in on who owns the strip of land near the beachfront homes where large, problematic sand dunes are forming: "My job is to advise the city: do you have a duty to remove the sand from along the walls on Shore Drive? My advice is no."

Calonne explained that the city has easement rights only to the area for maintaining public utilities buried underneath. "We don't own the land."

City Engineer Rick Raives told residents that major changes to the plan requiring stabilization of the dune area were not likely to be forthcoming from the Coastal Commission, which is the ultimate arbiter of what's done there. The commission halted the use of heavy equipment on the state-owned beach in 1999. "Most people are looking for us to go back to the way we were so we could have the full recreational beach, and the Coastal Commission over and over has stated that they protect dunes that look worse than these do," Raives said.

Six residences in Newport beach, for instance, were recently fined $45,000 each for leveling a small naturalized dune area, which is protected under the Coastal Act.

A parade of Pierpont residents posed questions to the Council. In order to answer questions more fully, the Council tabled the discussion for a later meeting, possibly in April. It does appear hopeful, however, that the city will be maintaining the lanes and stairs more carefully in the future.

Council members were sympathetic to the many complaints over the Sand Plan, but stressed their hands were tied by the Coastal Commission, which was established in 1976 as part of the Coastal Act to balance the needs of private property owners and the environment.

"There are powerful agencies in this state that have a mandate and a passion that may not be shared by people in this room," City Manager Rick Cole told the crowd.

The Planning Commission is set to weigh in on the Coastal Permit Approval on May 6.

It's time for some contemplation by all. I had a blogger email an interesting suggestion to me tonight: Have the city turn Shore Dr. back into an unpaved road and let the trash trucks and emergency vehicles use it on the beach. Then the city could continue to maintain it and the Coastal Commission would most likely have to approve it. Also this would make a natural buffer between the Pierpont Community and the dunes.

What do you think?

East of Eatin'

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I LIVE IN THE UNFASHIONABLE East End of Ventura. It's an area of newer tract houses bordered by older tract houses and dotted by the occasional gas station and mini mart. In short, it's a cultural wasteland. It's a great place to raise a family but if you want a good meal, you have to drive a long way to find it.

In a town being revived by the idea of Smart Growth with walkable neighborhoods meshed with business areas and tree-lined boulevards, we are in the Stone Age. So I was intrigued when I read the report on the city's new Saticoy Wells Community Plan from Economics Research Associates:

Presently, the "Saticoy Village" on the southeast corner of Wells Road and Darling Road, already within the City's jurisdiction, could go forward. It has a letter of interest from TESCO (Fresh and Easy) and further intentions and has been exploring a wide variety of potential tenants. Some 30 possible tenancies are shown on the Concept Plan, dated September 5, 2007. The mix includes TESCO, a drug store, a hardware store, potential restaurant, and a coffee shop. Indeed, the concept demonstrates three restaurants, if the market is there.

I say BRING IT ON!

I believe I can speak for all of us out here in the East End when I say we are starved for attention. TESCO opened its first Ventura County Fresh & Easy store recently in Simi Valley. The stores, about the same size as Trader Joe's, offer prepared foods with a minimum of processing, plus regular grocery items. (I have added a video tour of the Simi Valley store above. Click on the arrow to play it.)

According to Maggie Ide, from the city's planning department, there is a "high probability" that TESCO will open a store in the Saticoy Village location. I am looking forward to this and the three new restaurants, if they are forthcoming.

With Oxnard's RiverPark (a short drive for us East Enders) opening a new retail center and a Whole Foods Market, I hope the City of Ventura can jumpstart this project as well as other retail projects planned for the Saticoy Wells area. We need to keep our tax dollars in Ventura.

The City Council will take up the Saticoy Wells Community Plan tonight in a joint session with the Planning Commission.

The fine art of generating revenue

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I OPENED MY NEW COPY of Sunset magazine the other day and was pleased to find a large, eye-catching ad promoting Ventura as a tourist destination and arts mecca. Since being appointed to the city's Cultural Affairs Commission in 2006, I have been keenly interested in the city's promotion of the arts as an economic generator.

But is the "New Arts City" strategy really paying off?

According to internationally known arts marketing expert Jerry Yoshitomi, it is. "There's a lot going on from a fairly modest investment by the city," he noted. Yoshitomi, who has an office in the Bell Arts Factory, a thriving arts center, also praised the accessibility of the creative scene. "My sense is that Ventura's become a place where you can experience the arts on a more regular basis."

Cultural Affairs Manager Kerry Adams-Hapner is happy to point to the city's growth in cultural tourism. "Over the past 10 years, our artists and arts organizations have raised the bar and elevated Ventura's reputation as a destination for cultural tourists," she said.

These visitors, such as those who attend ArtWalk Downtown, tend to stay longer, eat in local restaurants and stay in our hotels, providing needed sales tax revenue, Adams-Hapner explained. ArtWalk will become a two-day event in April and sponsors hope to attract many regional visitors.

VENTURA'S ARTISTS and non-profit arts businesses generate more than $18 million in economic activity annually, according to an Economic Impact of the Arts in Ventura Report conducted in 2004. Nationally, the arts have been a boon to many cities. Newsweek magazine recently reported that real estate prices often see an uptick in area where artists live.

The city is also a partner in the Working Artists Ventura (WĀV) project, which just began construction in Downtown Ventura.

You would be hard pressed to find an endeavor aimed at meeting more of Ventura's needs. It is a virtuoso undertaking which will pump dollars into the local economy through jobs and retail sales, provide affordable housing for artists, assisted housing for homeless families and market-rate ocean-view penthouse condos for upper-income residents. The project will create an environmentally friendly atmosphere and enliven our already thriving arts community through a theater, gallery space and cafes.

"It was a conspiracy for public good," said Chris Velasco of Projects Linking Art, Community & Environment (PLACE), the stewards of the project.

All this economic activity is wonderful, but there is another value of the arts scene in Ventura that doesn't come with a price tag. The city's many arts events get us off the couch and out of the house. "They have a community-building impact," Yoshitomi said. "The events actually encourage a camaraderie."

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This space is devoted to thoughtful and lively discussion about the events, people and politics which shape Ventura and our state. If you would like to suggest blog topics, email me.

About the author

Marie Lakin, a long-time resident of Ventura, is a community activist and writer/editor.
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