Spirit of Downtown Awards Honor People, Groups Working Toward a Better Long Beach

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Photos by Asia Morris.

Downtown Long Beach has come a long way in the past year, and with the new Plenary/Edgemoor Civic Partnership-designed Civic Center looming on the horizon, and the continued work of the Downtown Long Beach Associates, City Councilmembers and local volunteers, it's plain to see that 2015 is going to be even better.

Attendees at Thursday's Celebrate Downtown event included all types of Long Beach locals and supporters, residents eager to see their City reach a potential they've always known its had, waiting for the right team and the right people to bring it out of her.

DSC 0199An unusually casual Kraig Kojian, President and CEO of the DLBA took the stage in jeans and a sweatshirt—we'd never seen him not in a suit—looking like a hardworking man with his mind set on building up the city's Downtown core with his own hands, if need be.

Kojian set the tone with his casual manner, ensuring that what could have easily become an uppity soiree turned out to be a gathering of like-minded individuals, of warm-hearted friends and family open to new ideas and sharing their work with an appreciative and excited close-knit community.

Mayor Robert Garcia and Vice Mayor Suja Lowenthal both bestowed their pleasant surprise at the transformation of Lincoln Park from an often-considered up-and-coming, yet still unsafe space, to the swanky, cocktail-hour vibe it took on for Celebrate Downtown. Thanks to the always-creative Gina Dartt, Marketing & Special Events Manager of the DLBA, who hired the sculpture and chalk artists and carefully chose the decorations, the overall color scheme, among too many other details to count, that would normally overwhelm your average event planner, Lincoln Park became truly a one-of-a-kind site for sore eyes. Additionally, Sean Warner, Placemaking Manager for the DLBA, assisted Dartt with the physical arrangement of the giant blue, block letters and helped fill the park's new "pond" with blue recycled rubber mulch, while City Fabrick also contributed with a couple ideas of their own.

The park was transformed into what many party goers were heard murmuring that it "should look like" all the time, a well-cared-for and well-attended safe and enjoyable space for the entire Downtown community. Magnificent fauna-inspired sculptures by Glen Mann stood by the entrance and throughout the park, while Friends of Lincoln Park's Dawn Jay's artful chalk drawings posed alongside the decorative, spray painted circles with #DTLB painted inside them (Dartt's and Warner's idea), a detail that colored the park's normally dulled cement ground, all the while lanterns hung draped romantically amongst the Lincoln Park trees.

Michelle Molina, DLBA Board Chair-Elect and outstanding community advocate in her own right, took to the stage to introduce the four recipients of this year's Spirit of Downtown Awards, an honor created three years ago by the DLBA to acknowledge people whose work has shaped Downtown for the better.

DSC 0200The inagural awards were granted posthumously to four men Long Beach lost in 2012; our own Shaun Lumachi, founder of the Long Beach Post; Larry Allison, storied Editor of the Press-Telegram; Bill Baker, a renowned volunteer and master of redevelopment and last but not least, the Mark Bixby, former DLBA Director and bicycling advocate who largely spearheaded the development of our City's bicycling infrastructure.

Last year, John and Michelle Molina, Lauren Limbaugh and Kasra Esteghamat, as well as Jim Danno and Kathleen Irvine of the Willmore City Heritage Association were honored. 

This year’s honorees make up a class of downtown community members who have continuously and relentlessly gone above and beyond the call of duty to help shape downtown, and Long Beach as a whole.. And while there’s always much more to be done, it’s comforting for any Long Beach local to know that this just a facet of the team paving the way forward.

This year's awardees were Mary Coburn, the outgoing Operations Manager of the DLBA, who has been with the organization for eleven years; the always-energetic Giovanna Ferraro, owner of Groundwork Fitness on Pine Ave.; Brian Ulaszewski, founder and Executive Director of the nonprofit design group City Fabrick and the grassroots advocacy group Friends of Lincoln Park, who, along with Downtown stakeholders, residents, businesses and supporters, have turned a park broadly viewed as unkempt and unsafe into a destination for activities, events and gatherings for the public.

DSC 0201Molina introduced the awardees by commending them for getting their hands dirty, for taking the huge and sometimes overwhelming responsibility of turning their community into something great. "[Y]ou can't certainly be afraid of a little dirt, or a little noise or a little disruption, and I think in most cases Downtown people are responsible for some of that," Molina said, to ecstatic woops from the crowd.

"But, I'll tell you most of all, what they don't do, is they don't take a finger and they don't point up there," she pointed her finger at City Hall, "and say, it's their job to make Downtown important. They take their finger and they point it right here," she said as she pointed at her heart, "and say, 'it's my job.' And the people who are getting those awards tonight, they actually convince other people to do that, too. And so everybody takes responsibility. So that is what a Downtown Spirit Award recipient is like, and that's what Downtown is like."

Mary Coburn, who is largely responsible for forming and conducting Downtown Long Beach's Clean and Safe Team, gave perhaps the most sentimental acceptance speech of the evening. Her words were met with love and encouragement from the crowd, a sign that Coburn will truly be missed.

DSC 0258"I am totally overwhelmed and honored with this award tonight. As I was growing up, my parents were always involved with small businesses and I saw them struggle year after year," she said. "I've worked in small businesses, my husband and I have owned a small business and I know the grit that it takes to run a small business and the passion that each of you feel for what you're doing day in and day out...," she paused. "Wow, I'm speechless."

"In my heart Long Beach is my home and it is gratifying to see the many changes I have been part of in both Bixby Knolls and Downtown," Coburn told the Post in an earlier interview. "With passionate individuals, unwilling to settle for the status quo, and with the tenacity to push the envelope day in and day out, our Downtown will continue to grow and prosper."

The Clean and Safe Program, one of Coburn's greatest accomplishments during her eleven years as Operations Manager at the DLBA, is a design that other districts reference for best practices. According to Coburn, a homeless outreach specialist was added to the red-shirted team in July to provide greater assistance to downtown's homeless neighbors. Just as Downtown has evolved, the Clean and Safe Program has grown to become a necessity in the heart of the City.

"I feel tonight that I am leaving the heart of our community, our Downtown, in good hands[...]. It's up to you to push that agenda, " she compelled the crowd.

DSC 0276Giovanna Ferraro, who fell in love with Long Beach as a student at CSULB, decided then that Downtown Long Beach's energy would make it the perfect place for her small business. Groundwork Fitness on Pine Ave., has so far accomplished a feat many small businesses do not, and made it through its first year.

"It feels humbling to be recognized for the Spirit Award," Ferraro, commonly known as "Gio" to her friends, family and clients, said. "It's always nice to get recognized but at the same time I feel I haven't done enough for such a recognition. Groundwork Fitness wants to impact the community in a positive direction and has set goals to do so. This is a pat on the back to let us know, keep doing what you're doing... we are extremely thankful to this great community. Embracing Downtown and giving back is how we will represent this award!"

This year, Groundwork Fitness will collaborate with local small business 1897LB to launch "KEEP LBC FIT," a new campaign to help Long Beach residents utilize all their city has to offer in terms of opportunities to spend more time outside and adjust locals' views in a positive manner, regarding what it means to be active and in shape.

DSC 0240The Groundwork Fitness team, composed of Ferraro, Kristine Ramos, Ryan Erwin, Kangsan Kim, Don Sevilla and Scott Rogowski, will continue to work with The Villages at Cabrillo, Back on My Feet, Friends of Lincoln Park and MHA The Village as a generous entity, giving those who wouldn’t necessarily be able to afford fitness classes the opportunity to learn about and take control of their health.

"As a small business owner I take responsibility for not pointing out our community problems, but instead, I take responsibility to help fix them,” she explained. “It is easy to point fingers and complain, it's hard work to listen, collaborate and help come up with solutions. I want to be that business owner, helping with solutions to drive this amazing downtown community to being an epic downtown community," Ferraro concluded.

The third Spirit of Downtown Award was given to Brian Ulaszewski, an "urbanerd," as Molina called him, and founder and Executive Director of City Fabrick, the nonprofit design studio responsible for the hard-to-miss yellow Park[D] Plaza at Frontenac Court, across from Berlin, as well as the better utilization of the Aquarium of the Pacific's Entrance Plaza, among several other projects designed to bring the community together.

DSC 0204"If you've driven down 4th St.," Molina continued, "and thought who on earth would take a parking lot, paint it yellow and put tetherballs there, that would be City Fabrick."

Ulaszewski, whose sole purpose of "finding opportunities to create places for people," has truly improved the landscape of Long Beach as a whole, told the Post in an earlier interview that, "[t]he city is going in a positive direction, with growing partnerships between residents, businesses, nonprofit organizations and local government for making our communities more vibrant, whether they are events, place-making efforts or beautification projects. We are seeing greater interest in finding ways to say 'yes' though we still have a ways to go."

"Long Beach needs to understand how much power public investment can have improving the quality of life for its residents," Ulaszewski said, when asked what our city needs the most. "Whether resurfacing a street, building a new library or installing new bus stops, these investments can have exponential greater impact when coordinated with other public efforts, private development and community initiatives."

DSC 0303The fourth recipient was the advocacy group Friends of Lincoln Park, who have spent the year working relentlessly to reactivate the space surrounding Long Beach City Hall and the Main Library. Allison Kripp, who heads the Events Committee for the group, received the award with her children, while proud community volunteers, advocates and supporters lined up in front of her.

When asked what some of the difficulties were in turning Lincoln Park around, Kripp explained, “I personally did not know what hurdles to expect when Joe Ganem asked myself and Melissa Escalante to chair and lead the 1st Annual Egg Rock and Roll. Then Michelle Molina and Kraig Kojian asked me to be the lead for Friends of Lincoln Parks Team Activation and, of course, I said yes... Honestly, I just wanted a park to play in the Downtown with our kids. The ‘hurdles’ have been realizing the truth about a park that has been alone for some years and working together figuring out ways to address these hurdles and move forward.”

The Friends of Lincoln Park Organization includes members from Downtown residents to business owners, DRC and its Neighborhood associations, local city officials and their employees, Health and Human Services, LBPD and their Quality of Life Team, Mental Health America - The Village, DLBA, Homeless Coalition, Beacon For Him, Back on My Feet Los Angeles, Long Beach Parks, Recreation and Marine, CVB, The Port... “Even Chuck E Cheese,” said Kripp. “Such a great group, all with the same intention of growing Lincoln Park into a fun and beautiful destination spot with all kinds of events for everyone to enjoy.”

DSC 0202Kripp would like to inspire others to contribute to their immediate communities if the need is there by educating ourselves on “the whole picture, always move forward, stay positive and don’t hesitate to try something new. Repeat,” she said. Kripp is also looking for more volunteers to help with upcoming events at the park as well as Centennial Plaza, such as 2nd Annual Egg Rock and Roll on April 4, Live After 5’s first concert in the park on April 9 as well as ongoing events such as Free and Fit classes on Saturdays and Picnic in the Park on Fridays.

Alongside the award ceremony, Plenary/Edgemoor Civic Partnership (PECP) were present for Celebrate Downtown attendees to discuss the new design, of which a physical model was present for locals to study. Enthusiastic residents were able to discuss one-on-one with PECP leaders the upcoming Civic Center Space, including Lincoln Park, the library, City Hall, the new Port of Long Beach Headquarters and commercial spaces to be built throughout the area.

DSC 0211Good vibes were felt by all, as musician Joshua Fischel spoke excitedly about each upcoming Live After 5 event, while opening band MajicBulletTheory and closing band The Get Down Boys accompanied the award ceremony as guests mingled and drank and dusk turned to night under the low hanging lanterns, showing off Lincoln Park in rare form.

“Beginning with the DLBA’s former State of the Downtown event, which had a very corporate approach that featured sponsored tables and keynote speakers such as Robert Kennedy Jr. and Richard Florida, our Celebrate Downtown event has transitioned organically with the evolution of our organization and the community to fit with what our mission is—not only creating a better Downtown but honoring it,” said Kojian in a statement. “The celebration harkens to the spirit of those four individuals and their visions for what Long Beach could be, which is precisely why we are hosting it in Lincoln Park. Changes—massive ones—are occurring there and those changes will only grow in magnitude as the new Civic Center moves forward.”


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