Thursday, September 27, 2012

Corner Store Survives Landslide

The Unmovable Peggy Lindquist; First A Scary Building Purchase and Then A Landslide Hits Damaging Sales at Her Corner Store

Small Miracles Prevent  Its Closure

By Diana L. Chapman
   Grim, more grim and then grimmer.
   It seemed like someone was turning the lights out at the popular Corner Store in San Pedro, known for its catchy community spirit and wacky-fun adventures from soda tasting to a sidewalk chalking art contest for kids and a safe place for neighbors to  hang out.
   Times were rough already for the store when Peggy Lindquist and her husband Bruce  took it over in 2006 and then purchased the building in 2008 for $780,000. Despite all the snazzy attractions such as hundreds of kids showing up to trick-or-treat or Santa's visit at "Miracle at 37th Street" the road where the store is located, sales continued to stagnate.
   "When we bought the property, we thought that was the worst year," Peggy said. "We didn't know how we would make it through that. We were basically operating out of fear."
   The couple didn't know it at the time. Things would get much, much worse. In  June 2011,  Paseo del Mar -- a major artery to the Corner Store buckled and then turned into a sinkhole, closing down the road. By November, giant chunks of the road slipped off into the sea. By now, 25 percent of the store's business plummeted and with tears in her eyes, Peggy and Bruce, were getting ready for layoffs -- and as a last resort --- the store's possible closure.  At that moment, the couple had no idea that their customers and the editor of a local magazine would rescue them.
    "The landslide," Peggy said, "was devastating."
    They tried to face it with humor offering up  "Sink Hole specials" and "Landslider Burgers." Even the 127 kinds of sodas from places like Lebanon, England, Germany, Jamaica and France bearing odd names such as Kick-A-Poo Joy or Jolt Cola or odd tastes -- dry cucumber or jalapeno -- were not pulling people in during the worst economy since the Great Depression. The real estate market had also bottomed out.
    Customer Doug Epperhart said of a potential closure: "Think about the individuals you see at the Corner Store and then subtract them from your life. Huge loss. Where else can you go and know you're going to see someone you want to see?"
    Confiding her fears to one customer, Lindquist later learned the woman went home and put the news up on her face book page. It said something like: "'Help Peggy and Bruce,'" Peggy said. "'They need help.' People started coming in and saying: 'What can I do? What can we buy? We'll buy the biggest thing you have."
    The owners found the generosity shocking and powerfully moving and then found even more help from an unexpected corner. The editor, owner and publisher of San Pedro Today, Joshua Stecker, placed a free ad in his magazine that said:
    "Even a landslide can't keep us down," and provided a map to the Corner Store.
    "I was just in tears," Peggy explained. "It meant so much  to me. He did it out of the goodness of his heart."
   Stecker said for him it was a slam dunk.
   "Why did I help Peggy? It's really a no brainer," the editor said. "I love the Corner Store. I love everything it represents. It's that little slice of Mayberry that we need to keep. We can't let that place fail."
    Having dreamed of owning such a store since childhood and having handled food operations  for Knott's Berry Farm, Peggy found it enticing that she could select her own programs for the store -- something she'd never had a chance to do at Knott's.
   Visiting the Angels Gate Cultural Center, she said, was like a "colorful explosion" so she invited 57 local artists from there to fill the walls, allowed writing classes, art classes and fundraiser after fundraiser for many non-profits in town including the Marine Mammal Care Center and the Point Fermin Light House. She sunk her teeth into the community -- which she wanted to do  --  inviting in neighborhood meetings and jewelers to sale their wares.
    And while sales remained low, Peggy believed she was building on the community spirit first started by Susan McKenna who took it over in 1999 and who was later joined by her friend Marisa Giuffre. The store originally opened as liquor store 65 years ago and turned into a scuzzy, run-down building. But the Australian women had other ideas of what such a store should be. In their country, such places were meant for social gatherings where friendships were built.
    With a European flair, they succeeded in making it exactly that, but decided to move on to other adventures.
   With the help from customers, the Lindquists have now landed on stable ground and sales are climbing -- allowing her to bring in more products. The place is as colorful as any circus and Peggy built on what she knew from Knott's-- old time Americana.
   She added an array of old fashioned candy, cow tales, Mary Janes, coconut bars and wax lips. Gourmet deserts line the glass case from cheesecakes to a myriad of brownies - and a plethora of tasty sandwiches with perky names such as: Walk the Plank, an albacore tuna on squaw or croissant with lettuce and sliced tomatoes.
   Another addition Peggy likes to pride herself on is finding small entrepreneurial products with cool quirks  like Jerry's Famous Hummus "an amazing" product as well as "All Peppered Up" salsa and barbecue sauces.
   The store is also crammed with Melissa and Doug toys, including giant stuffed animals, large giraffes, tigers, horses, make believe cooking play sets, ranches, stickers and art supplies.
    Every day, the Corner Store keeps humming along serving up  lattes and scones, with locals chatting away about local and national politics. It's all still there for one reason; its gutsy customers who refused to allow a landslide let it die.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Science Center Gets a Tempoary Reprieve

San Pedro Science Center Temporarily Rescued At the Last Minute
By Diana L. Chapman
John Zalvaney, the science director,  shows off a turkey at the site with David Kooper, former chief of staff for LAUSD School Board Member Richard Vladovic.

The director shows off one of his many reptiles.
  Los Angeles Unified School officials reversed their decision to remove staff from the Science Center in San Pedro within the month and will allow the employees to remain until the end of June, administrators said Friday.
   This halts the possible shut down of the science center for several months while the district  launches a hunt for a non-profit or sponsor to take over the 3 1/2 acre site, which opened in 1927 and has taught thousands of kids world science and nature.
   Initially center director John Zavalney was told he had two weeks to pack up and other employees about a month. He said he couldn't talk to the media and directed calls to his wife.
   "He's thrilled," said Zavalney's wife, Darlene. " It's a huge relief. Now there's time to help look for a non-profit and do it right. I think something wonderful will come from this."
   Nanette Roeland also breathed a sigh of relief. She has cared for the farm animals there for 11 years and was told earlier she could be shifted to the Grananda Hills Science Center.
   The animals are her family, she said.
  "They (school officials) said the animals will be ok and I will be here for those    animals," Roeland said after a Friday's morning meeting. "I'm somewhat relieved that I didn't have to go to Granada Hills. I can't leave the animals. I can't."
   The center has a unique history with the district housing animals such as goats, chickens and turkeys along with larger farm animals, including Ophelia, a 300 plus pound sow, and Peaches a Shetland pony. Zavalney also had a collection of 30 reptiles at the sight.
   Initially, the district announced removal of staff  within the month-- detailing that employees were not allowed to discuss the matter or mar plans for a future group to take over. No agency had been named to run the site. The action became a public relations nightmare as rumors swirled that the staff was being cleared out to make way for acquaintances of Los Angeles School Board Member Richard Vladovic.
   Chris Torres, chief-of-staff for Vladovic, said there were never plans to hand off the center to a volunteer or a woman that once ran the program years ago. Vladovic, he said, in a last ditch effort  to avoid the center's permanent closure -- prompted the non-profit request once top administrators targeted it for a final closure.
  School officials will shortly put out requests for proposals to start the search, Torres said.
  In a released statement, Vladovic explained: "I will continue to work with Deputy Superintendent Jaime Aquino and his office in identifying a group that is passionate about providing unique learning experiences to our students and the community."
   The board member renamed the facility a few years ago calling it the Vic and Bonnie Christensen Science and Sustainability Center. The couple had run a volunteer program after saving  it from closure in 1969. Christensen left in 1992 and says she has no plans to run the facility, one of the rumors that started. She does, however, want to help pick the non-profit and gather volunteers.
   For the past five years, Vladovic fought to keep the center open, but top administrators told him the district no longer has $350,000 to $400,000 on an annual basis to keep it running amid gigantic swaths of budget cuts that have removed a plethora of teachers and support staff from campuses.
   In the past, Vladovic fought for funding to keep open the district's Center of Marine Studies, also in San Pedro adjacent to the Marine Mammal Care Center.  That program teaches hundreds of students about marine life. The interim director there, Chris Nagel, said with many programs closing due to intense budget cuts, he fears for the marine studies program.
   "Vladovic has been 100 percent about saving us," Nagel said. "They  (Vladovic and staff) have fought tooth and nail to save it. It makes you wonder  who's next."

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

LAUSD employee vows to care for animals

Alma Bruhnke leads a goat at the San Pedro Science Center.

LAUSD Promises To Begin Searching for an Organization to Take Over the Science Center Amid Rumors and Upset

By Diana L. Chapman

   While school officials are scrambling to find an outside operator for the science center, one Los Angeles School District employee at the site vowed she will not leave until she has guarantees that the animals are safe and well cared for.
   Nanette Roeland, who has nurtured, fed and cleaned up after about 250 animals at the facility for the past eleven years, said the public should not fear that for the animal's safety because they are "my family" and school officials understand the popularity of the livestock  and will not hurt them.
   "I will not leave," said Roeland who volunteered for the first three years before the district hired her as a technician and charged her with the animal care. "I will be here every day. I have been with them for so long. They (school officials) won't sell them or give them away. I will not let them hurt the animals. The animals are innocent. It's sad. It's nerve wracking.
   "But I understand they (school officials) are doing what they have to do."
   Roeland is one of a handful of employees at the San Pedro Science Center who learned last week that the  center had fallen victim to a long line of excruciating budget cuts in the Los Angeles Unified School District. District officials said they will be searching for a non-profit or another organization to manage the site as a way to keep its doors open.
   Roeland, who one administrator said works 18 hours a day, added that school officials understand the love the community has for the animals at the center, such as Ophelia, the sow, and Peaches, a Shetland pony, and will ensure their care. The center also houses a myriad of ducks, geese, albino squirrels and goats.
   In a surprise move  that took many off guard last week, Director John Zavalney was given two weeks to pack up and move to another post within the district and the three technicians were expected to be moved to the Granada Hills Science Center.
   The decision shocked  many who supported the Science Center, which opened up as the Weymouth Science Center in 1927. The property will remain in the hands of LAUSD, confirmed Chris Torres, chief of staff for school board member Richard Vladovic, but another agency will run it.
  "I was blindsided," said Diana Nave, president of the North West San Pedro Neighborhood Council in San Pedro. "This is a real jewel for our community. How can they close it with so little notice? It will take time and may be a real challenge for any potential operator to put together the funds required. What is the plan for taking care of the plants and animals in the meantime?
  "This is such a sad day when we lack funds for such a great program."
   Nave added that she put the center on the agenda for the council's next meeting and hopes to get answers from the district.
   Board member  Vladovic, who has fought to keep the site open over the past five years, asked  the district to prevent the center's closure.
   "When I was recently informed by the Office of Instruction that there were no more funds to keep the center open, I told them that we must find any funding source possible to save the center," Vladovic said in a released statement. "Whether money or resources come from grants, non-profits, private donors, I will continue to work to make sure that the center remains open to our schools and community.
   "By being the only center of its kind to be open in all of LAUSD, it is not only a jewel for San Pedro, it's a jewel for the whole district."
   In the meantime, LAUSD will send out requests for proposals to find an organization, a non-profit or sponsors to keep the doors open, Torres said.
   Part of the problem, he added, was that the annual budget for the center runs about  $350,000 to $400,000 a year -- with about one-third of it going to the director.
   While employees were asked to keep the issue quiet, the news was so astonishing that newspapers immediately snapped it up and residents want to know the center's future.
   One LAUSD official told the employees that they need to make, whoever may come in to fill the void, comfortable.
   "As you are moving on, one thing we want to make sure is happening for the center is to continue to provide our students with the same educational opportunity in experiencing nature, and we want all to continue to feel welcomed and appreciated at the center after your departure," wrote Ayham Dahi, who works for the district as the coordinator of secondary science.
   "That is why I am directing you to refrain from giving out any information about the  future of the center, information that might be based on speculations and not facts, information that might carry any negative tone about the new occupants of the center."
   No matter what happens, center volunteer Ralph Galante hopes he can continue his work there.
   "I use to go there as a kid," Galante said. "I volunteered to help out. I love it down there. It's a lot of fun."

Monday, September 17, 2012

SP Science Center to Go to Non-profit

John Zavalney greets Peaches, the science  center's Shetland pony.
Los Angeles Unified To Give Up San Pedro Science Center to a Non-Profit

By Diana L. Chapman

   Swimming in a chaos of budget cuts, Los Angeles Unified plans to turn over one of its last remaining science centers to a non-profit organization to continue its San Pedro operations, school officials said Monday.
   The move shocked employees at the 3 1/2 acre site who were told about the center's fate last Thursday. The news slowly trickled out over the weekend, making some residents concerned about the future of the center's popular farm animals, including Ophelia, the 500 pound sow and Peaches, a Shetland pony.
   A school official close to the matter, who asked not be named because he hadn't received clearance to discuss the change, said the time had come to admit the district could no longer afford the facility. Los Angeles School Board Member Richard Vladovic, who has fought to keep it open for the past five years, agreed for the first time it was no longer feasible. The annual budget for the center is at least $275,000, the official said.
   "The district doesn't have any money," said the administrator. "We've been keeping it together with rubber bands and glue. The alternative was to shut it down."
   School officials said they have yet to select a non-profit, but that the animals will be safe and provided for in the meantime.
   Current director John Zavalney, a San Pedro resident, has the choice to move to the downtown's district headquarters or to take a job teaching. The center's three technicians will be moved to the Granada Hills Science Center, which supplies science projects to elementary schools.
   Zavalney said he was told not to discuss the matter, but said he plans to take the 30 reptiles he cared for and place them in new homes. The director has served as the center for nearly eight years and worked on community partnerships -- including getting his salary at one point partly paid by the Department of Water and Power. That funding has since shriveled up. He added that initially he had been told they had one year to boost visitors numbers.
   His wife, Darlene, however, said she has no compunction  talking about it and said her husband is stunned.
   "He called and said: "They are going to give the center away,"  said Darlene, who added that her husband had received numerous awards for his teaching skills, including Disney's American Teaching reward as one of the top teachers in the country. "John was given two weeks to clear out his stuff and the technicians have a month. This will be John's 25th year. They've broken his spirit."
   Resident Judith Cairns, who fed and trapped wild cats at the site and had a working relationship with Zavlaney called the decision "cloak and dagger. Our hearts are broken."
   "We are horrified," she said "at what will become of Ophelia, the beloved sow, Peaches, the pony, the goats, chickens, ducks, turkey, geese, birds and the other critters who have made the science center so cherished by thousands of students, teachers and members of the community who have participated in the instructional field trips and activities at the Science Center for decades."
   Cairns said she will file a Freedom of Information Act to see how school administrators arrived at this decision.
   No non-profit has been selected to run the center that sits in the heart of a residential area on Barrywood Avenue, tucked behind North Gaffey and Westmont Drive, school officials said. A handful of such organizations had expressed interest in the past and will be recontacted.
   "There's no non-profit identified," confirmed Chris Torres, Vladovic's chief of staff. "The district did everything possible to keep it open."
   But that has just fueled speculation that the woman who once managed it as a volunteer will return to run it again. Bonnie Christensen had recently complained to Vladovic's office about the poor quality of the facility -- which had nothing to do with the recent decision, school officials said.
   A few years ago, Vladovic had the science facility renamed to the Vic and Bonnie Christensen Science and Sustainability Center because the couple who lived in the neighborhood prevented the center's closure in 1969 an ran it for several years.
   Christensen, whose husband is no longer alive, said she has no interest in running a non-profit, but would be willing to help school officials do what she did in past -- gather up funding and volunteers.
   When the center was near closure then, she lobbied to run it with volunteers and led a successful program until 1992. She received help from longshoremen and the center's neighbors to continue educating students across LAUSD  -- all manpowered by volunteers. Students learned about farm animals, eggs, nests and a myriad of other lessons about nature.
   "I'm not a non-profit and I don't even know how to start one," Christensen said, who hopes to help the district. "We're going to get it going. I certainly will support getting it back in condition. When I saw it, it looks terrible. I wanted to cry. We are determined to get it back to the way it used to look.
   "It was so pristine."