Centennial Celebration: Half-Baked

Stormy surprises, member in-fighting, government push-back, canceled events, controversial debt … these were a few of the unwelcome guests that crashed Manhattan Beach’s 100th birthday party.

It’s an unusually warm October afternoon, but even unseasonable autumn weather hasn’t deterred Jan Dennis from getting a head start on ordering her holiday decorations. With classical music lingering in the background, Jan puts aside her catalog and changes topic to a new book she recently completed for a publisher. She happily shares that The Manhattan Beach Chronicles, a collection of her newspaper articles she’s written over her nearly five decades in the city, will soon go to print.

In addition to being a longtime resident, Jan served as a council member and mayor, but she now devotes most of her time as a city historian and photo archivist. The new book, her seventh, won’t be released until 2013, a few months shy of the Centennial’s finale in December. But that’s neither here nor there for Jan. In fact, perhaps the end couldn’t come soon enough.

A couple years ago when the city council began look-ing ahead to the Centennial, each of the five members nominated two volunteers to join a committee that would head up the yearlong celebration. Having helped plan the 75th affair back in 1987 and organized many a yearly parade for the city, Jan was a natural fit for this group of 10.

But even before she joined with the other nine committee members, Jan was crystal clear that the Manhattan Beach she toasted more than two decades ago has been somewhat eclipsed by an evolved metro—one with new residents, new expectations and a new wave of cash. Undeterred, Jan was going to “do her own thing,” investing her time and resources as she could.

Not too long after the committee was formed, the group of 10 began the process of divorcing themselves from the council that had created them. The committee became the Manhattan Beach Centennial Foundation, working with the city to garner a 501(c)(3) non-profit status and thus allowing them to seek sponsorships for the planned events.

 

The city even offered the new foundation a $10,000 jump-start, with the intention that these funds be paid back once sponsorship cash began to flow in. Through a mix of group and privately held meetings among foundation board members, a calendar began to form, with new events that included a Taste of Manhattan Beach in March, an open house festival in July and a huge beach gala in September.

One of the newer members of the foundation’s board was Grace Leung, who learned about the Centennial through former mayor Richard Montgomery. “Moving from New York, I quickly fell in love with the South Bay and the beach cities and had a deep desire to give back,” she shares.

"As a business owner, it was unfortunate the Centennial events were cut short, and we were unable to have the last few events that were planned for Downtown Manhattan Beach,” shares one disgruntled store owner. “Our town’s history, and those that helped create what Manhattan Beach is today, should be celebrated.”

A Sandpipers member, graduate of Leadership Manhattan Beach and a former board member of the Manhattan Beach Chamber of Commerce, Grace had the experience, enthusiasm and energy needed to execute an exciting itinerary of community events. Unanimously selected as treasurer, Grace helped create the foundation’s mission statement and objective, which included “providing education as well as honoring the City’s rich history, celebrating the present time, and providing a platform to look forward and welcome another 100 years of community.”

“I believe that down in their hearts they thought they were going to put on a good show,” says Jan. “They were sincere.” But one of the first controversies to arise from the foundation began with paid sponsor seats at the free-to-the-public Concerts in the Park.

“That started the whole situation,” she notes. “The audience, the townspeople, everybody—except, of course, those who took part in paying for their seats down front—were very, very unhappy. It was not anyone’s fault, but the city just felt the 100th anniversary was going to be free … to everyone, and it should have been.”

Unlike past celebrations that were widely attended with free community events, the Centennial, with sponsors, VIP packages and front-row exclusivity, immediately set an uneasy tone. While some say the introduction of these aspects were inevitable given the new wealth and growth of Manhattan Beach over the last decade, this “pay to play” mentality put a bad taste in the mouth of many longtime residents.

“It's a shame that the Centennial has been marred by some people being unhappy or calling the events elitist,” shares one Downtown business owner unopposed to the idea of event sponsorships. “I attended Centennial planning meetings as far back as two years ago. They only ever wanted it to be inclusive to everyone, aside from the gala.”

 

The first big event, the Taste of Manhattan Beach, was a splash, if primarily due to a winter storm that pounded the city on event day. With tents erected and a rallying sprit, the show went on with paid ticket holders braving monsoon-like conditions for a sampling of local food fare.

“It really did well to showcase many of the South Bay’s best foodie spots,” says celebrity chef Devin Alexander, who took the stage for a culinary demonstration. “The rain kept so many people away, which was particularly disappointing since the event was sold out. There were so many people I know, who wanted to attend and couldn’t.”

Another event faced a sunnier outlook. Despite resist-ance from some foundation board members from the get-go, Jan pushed for a parade. After a bit of “nagging,” as she calls it, Jan was told she could move forward with the parade, but under no circumstances could she seek sponsors, as that was the job of the foundation.

So Jan reached out to organizations around town to get them involved, and unlike other Centennial events that relied on a handful of sponsors to cover costs, she proposed a modest budget of about $2,000 that was approved by the city. “If people feel like they are a part of it, they will participate,” she says.

On parade day, close to 2,000 people walked in the event alone. “I had a phenomenal committee,” she says of the 16 parade volunteers. “Most of the men and women had worked with me on the parade 25 years ago. There was no fighting, arguing … it was probably the highlight of the whole year.”

Fellow board member Grace concurs: “It was embraced by the whole community, with involvement from all different organizations—not just from Manhattan Beach but surrounding cities.”

But things were not looking so rosy for the Centennial on the financial side of the street. Though the Taste of Manhattan Beach was a sold-out event, sponsorship funds were weaker than expected, and two big events still loomed in the coming summer months. To make matters worse, infighting within the foundation and growing frustration from the city council only compounded woes.

 

“It takes all types of people to make up the world, so inevitably that means you will encounter all types of personalities in your organization, be it volunteer or not,” says Grace. “For the most part, we are collaborative, but there are some stronger personalities that help drive some of the discussions.”

Marching to the front of the list of concerns was $38,000+ in bills that had piled up in Centennial expenses. These included promotional advertisements and banners, electrical upgrades, transportation costs and food for planning meetings. Adds Grace, “Being treasurer was challenging—although I may have recorded what revenues we earned and what expenses were incurred, I was not the one making the decisions of where the monies were being spent.”

The city had already forgiven the $10,000 loan given at the start of the process, but who would cover these additional costs—the taxpayers or the non-profit foundation? This open-ended question, plus a heated debate on whether or not the upcoming gala could legally serve liquor to guests on the beach, led to some unpopular decisions. There would be no festival. There would be no beach gala. Some board members quit the foundation altogether, and by October, the whole operation was practically dissolved. The Centennial Celebration had abruptly ended.

“As a business owner, it was unfortunate the Centennial events were cut short, and we were unable to have the last few events that were planned for Downtown Manhattan Beach,” shares one disgruntled store owner. “Our town's history, and those that helped create what Manhattan Beach is today, should be celebrated.”

At a recent city council meeting, the city decided to pay off the Centennial debt, with council member Amy Howarth saying, “For the good of the community, let’s try to wrap this up, move forward and try to remember the good events that we had.”

“Several people had said they are going to drag this whole thing out and people will forget, but for some unknown reason, people aren’t forgetting,” says Jan. “People are hanging on and want to know what happened to the Manhattan Beach Centennial.”

It would be irresponsible to blame the foundation or the city, individuals or even the weather for the disappointment attached to the Centennial celebration. Blame should be low on the laundry list.

Perhaps the larger conversation begins with the people of Manhattan Beach. What do you want to see from future city events in your town? Low-budget, big-hearted community events that appeal to the masses? Ticketed affairs that offer plenty of pizzazz at a price? A mix of both? If anything, the Centennial proved there was a demand for both. But at what cost?

 

“The biggest disappointment of all is that we have managed to lose sight of the original reason why we came together and why I initially volunteered my time and energy,” confides Grace, “ … to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the city of Manhattan Beach by creating opportunities for community members, all interested organizations and visitors to participate in.”

We need to accept that Manhattan Beach is not the Manhattan Beach of 100 or even 25 years ago. The small, homespun, beach-town vibe is slowly being swallowed by expanding commerce, expensive real estate and flashy new hot spots. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Progress is progress. And goodness knows we are 100% behind small business revenues and a healthy market that make our cities stronger every year.

What we stand to lose, however, is our past. 100 years may not seem like much to some people, but it’s all we have, and if we’re not careful, we will forget to inform our children why we came to Manhattan Beach in the first place—and perhaps even erase that legacy in favor of an amazing view or a place on Zagat’s top 10 dining list.

However, deep in this important Centennial year, there is a silver lining on the horizon. With the support of mayor pro tem David Lesser, Jan and other historians and government officials will hold a symposium on the present, past and future of Manhattan Beach. The free event will include the participation of the mayor’s youth council as well as other local schools and organizations.

“The young people, it’s going to be their city, and I’d like to hear what they think it’s going to be like in another 100 years,” says Jan. “People can come and spend the days hearing about the history of where they live.”

Participants are invited to set up small stations with images and information about their local organizations and engage attendees in conversation. There will be no tents, no VIP tables and no fireworks. The city will save those for the grand finale on December 9. But there will be a free lunch. No word yet if there will be a birthday cake.

Happy birthday, Manhattan Beach! Make a wish and make it a good one.

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