Sunday, May 9, 2010

Trains, Surfing, Baptisms, Soccer -- Spring Has Arrived in Ventura

Spring always makes you feel better. And here in Ventura – where the winter can be wet and chilly, and the summer can be foggy – spring usually means great weather. It’s warm and sunny, and if we’ve had some late rain, the hills are still green.

Because spring also means rebirth, it’s usually a time when people are out and about – doing things that enrich our community and remind us that we life in a great place. And that was certainly the case this Saturday – from morning till night.

My day began at the Ventura County Fairgrounds, where I picked up the 9:35 a.m. Amtrak train to Santa Barbara for our regional National Train Day celebration. I was joined by a number of other public transit advocates, including K.K. Holland of ASERT, our local public transit advocacy group, Claudia Armann of the McCune Foundation and her son, my colleague Christy Weir and two of her grandchildren, and City Manager Rick Cole and his kids. We were met up in Carpinteria by a large contingent from Santa Barbara and Goleta and then went on to the Santa Barbara train depot, where a celebration of rail transit had been put together by the Coalition for Sustainable Transportatio.

It was a beautiful morning, and of course there is no more beautiful commute in the world than Ventura to Santa Barbara. But that doesn’t change the fact that there are several thousand commuters on that corridor every weekday morning from here to there.

Most of them are in their cars on the jammed Highway 101. A few hundred of them take the Coastal Express bus, which provides 20-minute headways in beautiful coaches at rush hour.

But hardly any of them take the train – the one form of transportation that can get commuters out of the traffic congestion on Highway 101. That’s because there are only five Pacific Surfliner trains a day between Ventura and Santa Barbara – and they’re not timed for commuters. In fact, that 9:35 a.m. train is the very first one of the day. As a member of the Ventura County Transportation Commission, I’ve been working with my colleagues to try to change the Amtrak schedule, but it’s not easy.

After a pleasant Coastal Express bus trip southbound along Highway 101, I was back in Ventura by 12:30. But it was such a beautiful day I couldn’t imagine going home. So I changed into my gym clothes and went for a run along the Promenade. Frankly, I’ve been afraid to go running since I have developed eye problems – especially because I now have blind spots along the bottom of my vision and often trip over things. But the day was so beautiful, I couldn’t resist. And everything went fine. I stayed upright the entire time.

But it was still so beautiful I couldn’t go home. So I bought a hot dog and a soda from the vendor on the beach in front of the craft fair and the Crowne Plaza. Not exactly one of my “locavore” meals, nor a particularly healthy one, but on such a beautiful day it was certainly one of the most enjoyable lunches I’ve had in some time.

Wandering around downtown, I couldn’t believe all the people and things I ran into that clearly indicated spring had arrived.

At Surfers Point, they were just giving away the awards for the surf competition in our Corporate Games , which annually attracts hundreds of companies to compete.

Strolling past Rocket Fizz, on the corner of Santa Clara and Oak, I ran into Marcos Vargas, the head of our local social equity group, CAUSE (and my UCLA urban planning classmate), taking his girls for a visit to the store – but they said they were just going to look at all the candy and sodas. Yeah, right.

In a parking lot at the corner of California and Thompson, I ran into a huge throng of kids – with a few adults thrown in – congregating to head out for the beach. Most of the kids had blue shirts on, but a few had red shirts on. It turned out that this was a group from Eastminster Presbyterian Church on Telephone Road. The red-shirted kids were getting baptized and the blue-shirted kids were part of the “river” in which they would be dunked at the ocean. Eastminster may be in East Ventura, but Downtown and the beach is important to them, as it is to everybody in town.

At the Museum of Ventura County’s temporary exhibit space on California Street, I checked out a juried exhibit of quilts. By the way, if you haven’t stopped by their Main Street location, you should take a look at how their expansion – the first in nearly 40 years – is coming along. It’s going to be a terrific addition to our community when it’s done. And thank goodness they’re keeping construction workers busy during this real estate bust!

Strolling down Main Street, I found the sidewalks crowded and all the restaurants busy. Since I still didn’t feel like going home, I stopped off at Palermo, where my gelato was lovingly scooped out by owner Rick Stewart’s father, Dick.

And although I spent a lot of my day using trains and buses and my feet, I couldn't help but enjoy the fact that a lot of folks have gotten their classic cars out now that it's spring, and are driving them around.

But the best part of the day was yet to come – and that was the home opener of our national champion Ventura County Fusion soccer team.

A lot of smaller cities have minor-league baseball teams. But we are lucky to have the Fusion -- which belongs to Premiere Development League, a kind of “minor league” for soccer players ages 18-23, many of whom go on to play for the L.A. Galaxy and other major teams. Last August, the Fusion won the league title at Buena High by defeating the Chicago Fire before 3,500 people – and a national television audience on Fox Soccer Channel.

Soccer is a great sport to watch in person, and the Fusion players are really good. They're from all over the world, but a lot of them are also local. For example, former Ventura High star Mike Enfield -- who played two years with the Galaxy and then in Australia -- is making a comeback with the team.

In case you missed it, the Star did a big story on the Fusion Saturday. And the Fusion is having a big impact on our community -- more than just a soccer game every once in a while. There's a women's team, and more than 20 youth teams associated with the Fusion. And the energetic general manager, Ranbir Shergill, is aggressively bringing over teams from Europe and elsewhere to train here. The result? Some 1,200 room nights per year sold at the Crowne Plaza. The Fusion is clearly part of our economic development strategy.

Before the game against the Ogden Outlaws began, I had the privilege of presenting a game ball from the championship game to Graham Smith , who coached the Fusion for the last three years. Then I was both humbled and surprised to be presented with another championship game ball -- signed by all the Fusion players. It's in the Mayor's Office now if you want to come and take a look at it.

By the way, the Fusion dispatched the Outlaws, 3-0.

At the end of my Saturday all over town, I couldn’t help but think that we are nearing the end of the long winter we have been experiencing here in Ventura and around the nation. Business is picking up a little for everybody. People I know who’ve been looking for jobs are beginning to find them; and businesses that have been teetering on the edge are beginning to stabilize. It’ll be a while before things turn around at the City, of course, because we’re highly dependent on the retail and property markets for our tax revenue. We’re going to have to make some very difficult cuts in the coming budget year, and it won’t be pretty. But we will find a way to get through it and move on to better times. After Saturday, I couldn’t help but be optimistic about that.

PS: This is my 100th blog as a member of the City Council, dating back to December 2006, when I wrote about the Wells-Saticoy Community Plan. I originally started blogging just to let you all know why I vote the way I do on Monday nights. But I have a really good time writing about all kinds of things in Ventura and staying in touch with you. Please feel free to comment or email me as much as you want.