New Power Trio: Lamkin, Stroman honored for business advocacy in pandemic, Villareal heads North MB
by Mark McDermott
Nobody had any plan for this. Almost exactly 18 months ago, nearly every business in Manhattan Beach was shut down. Kelly Stroman, the president and CEO of the MB Chamber of Commerce, remembers sitting down with her one full time employee, Carolina Dorado, and addressing a single simple question: what do we do now?
“There is no rule book or handbook or guide for any of us in this situation,” Stroman recalled. “We quickly decided that our role at the chamber would be one, to help businesses survive, [and] for us to survive, so we can help businesses survive.”
A few blocks away, Jill Lamkin, executive director of Manhattan Beach Downtown Business and Professional Association, was grappling with the same question. She’d formerly owned a retail downtown shop, Sprouts for Kids, and so she viscerally understood the thin line between keeping a business alive and watching it go under, even during normal times.
“Managing through a pandemic is something that none of us had ever done before,” Lamkin said. “But I will say, it was all done as a huge labor of love. I mean, we do these jobs because we feel passionate about them, and saving all these businesses became our passion. It really was amazing.”
A few months ago, as the pandemic’s severity began to lessen with the arrival of vaccines, Allen Sanford, the owner of downtown restaurant Rockefeller, as well as the BeachLife Festival, mused on some of the early takeaways from the pandemic.
“In 30 years, we’re going to remember COVID and we’re going to talk about it and we’re going to talk about the people who actually did something, and helped,” said Sanford, who was a philosophy major at Santa Clara University before becoming a business person. “And we’re going to talk about the people who disappeared and just walled up their fortresses and went away for a while.”
Stroman and Lamkin, it is safe to say, fall in the former category. Like the business equivalent of first responders who run head on into a disaster while most are fleeing, both women most avowedly ran into the storm that was the pandemic lockdown. Both were honored for doing so at the August 3 City Council meeting by Mayor Suzanne Hadley.
“It’s been a crazy year,” Hadley said. “It’s been a year of COVID. We moved to Manhattan Beach for the weather, the climate, the local control, police and fire, public schools, little league parades, Live Oak tennis, and ceramics classes. There are many reasons we love Manhattan Beach, but our small businesses and our business climate is part of it. We like to walk to local businesses, we like to bike ride, we like to go by for coffee, we like to sit in Metlox and meet with people…. Our business community is part of why we live here. I love it. And the women I’ll be recognizing tonight have really assisted in protecting our business community during the last year of COVID.”
At the same meeting, a new advocate for local business was also recognized. Felicia Villarreal was recently appointed the executive coordinator for the newly established North Manhattan Beach Business Improvement District. The chair of that organization’s board, Sloopy’s owner Peter Kim, introduced her to the council and expressed hope that she would be “the next” Lamkin and Stroman, and become another strong voice for small business in the community.
“That’s putting a little pressure on her,” Kim said. “But knowing what she has done in her prior jobs and prior experiences, I think she should be fantastic.”
“These three women advocating for all the businesses in all four corners of Manhattan Beach are really working and collaborating together,” Hadley said. “Because a rising tide, and a rising business climate, benefits all businesses, large and small.”
MB Chamber: 24/7
Hadley was herself a small business owner in a previous chapter of her life, in Wisconsin, and so, when the pandemic hit she was particularly empathetic about the fate of her adopted hometown’s mom and pop businesses. Early in the pandemic, when businesses were struggling to figure out the labyrinthian application process for Paycheck Protection Program loans and numerous other red tape situations that arrived with novel coronavirus, Hadley frequently found herself reading constituent emails into the wee hours and firing off questions to Stroman about the “inscrutable, difficult to apply for” PPP loans.
“Kelly was ground zero with PPP,” Hadley said. “I remember emailing with her late at night, ‘The rules have been posted!’ and she is like, ‘I am on it!’ and connecting people. Kelly was just a real nexus for all those pandemic resources for the entire business community, big and small.”
The mayor was also struck by the fact that the MB Chamber offices on 15th Street remained open throughout the pandemic.
“I think that really speaks to her devotion to the community…. Members of the public and some visitors would wander in thinking that it was City Hall and it was open,” Hadley said. “And it’s inviting, she’s got comfy chairs, she’s got a coffee maker, and of course they were all staying safe and social distancing and wearing masks, but when it was legal to be open, the Chamber was open. Kelly was very proud of that…. She was able to answer questions, listen and provide counseling, literally, to residents and businesses. I know she had some really rugged, tearful, difficult conversations with some business owners during the teeth of this pandemic. Like Jill, she’s a mother hen; she protects all her chicks and is looking out for them 24/7, and she was on the job daily during the pandemic.”
Stroman said the role the Chamber needed to play became clear to her at the outset. In order to help businesses survive, the Chamber needed to be at the immediate beck and call of anyone who needed assistance.
“To really spend countless hours and days every day disseminating all the information from the city, the regional, the state level, even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce,” she said. “To be able to offer important, concise, factual information that would help the businesses navigate the pandemic everything from the PPP loans…to the ever changing protocols to the creation of the Safer South Bay program, which was a confidence boosting program for businesses as they reopened and so forth. That was our role, and I think we did it really well. Who knew that it would be 18 months later, and we’re still doing that?”
And they kept their doors open through thick and thin, something that caught the attention of a Chamber member business, Micron Disinfection, who brought an air scrubber to the office to further ensure Stroman and Dorado’s safety.
“They’re like, ‘Oh my god, you guys are staying open? We’ve got to keep you safe,’” Stroman recalled. “So it wasn’t easy, but people stopped by — residents, businesses, visitors — wondering what the heck to do, where to go, where to get the resources…The phone’s ringing off the hook, every gamut of call and email came into the Chamber office, particularly in the first six months. And then helping to create the Local Love campaign, which was the first one that helped sustain the businesses right before all the PPP loan disbursements hit Memorial Day a year ago.”
“We are really proud of what the Chamber has been able to offer the business community, the residential community, and working with council, and with staff. What can I say? We are all in this together. We still are.”
DBPA: never-ending advocacy
At the end of her remarks after being honored by City Council last week, Jill Lamkin did something indicative of how she works for downtown businesses. On the agenda that night was the arrival of $8.4 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds, and so Lamkin took the opportunity to lobby the council on businesses’ behalf.
“Kelly and I both are really looking forward to the up and coming conversation about the American Rescue Plan Act, because we are hoping that we can continue to brainstorm some long term ideas that will support economic success for the city, the residents and our businesses,” Lamkin told the council.
Her advocacy never stops. And though the mayor outlined all that Lamkin and the DBPA did to help businesses during the pandemic — including playing a crucial role in creating the outdoor dining deck program and establishing a program that both sent meals to local hospital workers and helped local restaurants — Lamkin’s instinctual response was to credit the businesses themselves, as well as the residents who helped keep downtown alive.
“The business owners just were so resilient and creative and worked so hard to save themselves,” Lamkin said. “But most of all I am so proud of our residents, because there are lots of cities that don’t look the same as Manhattan Beach does right now, and it’s because our residents really got it. They understood what shopping and dining local meant — that it was what was going to save the community that we have, and so I thank them all so much for their efforts.”
At the very outset of the pandemic, DBPA found a creative way to help. Its “Feed the Heroes” campaign raised $125,000 to purchase meals at downtown restaurants, which at the time were restricted to carry-out orders, and deliver three meals a day to the overrun medical workers at Providence Little Company of Mary and Torrance Memorial medical centers. As onsite dining began to resume, albeit in a limited way, DBPA played a crucial role, along with the City, in establishing the outdoor dining decks that transformed downtown Manhattan Beach.
“Now we can’t imagine downtown MB without this wonderful program,” Hadley said. “Not only did it save some restaurants, but it brought many shoppers and visitors to our downtown to shop retail, pick up deliveries, avail themselves of our wonderful local services, and feed our parking meters. So we all agree that outdoor dining downtown has been an MB home run.”
Lamkin, of course, took the opportunity to remind everyone that as successful as these programs have been, the work is not done.
“I do just want to remember that we are not out of the woods yet,” Lamkin said. “And we need you all to still continue to shop local, dine local, and your small businesses.”
North MB BID:
Hit the ground running
Felicia Villarreal started working for North Manhattan Beach even before she arrived in town. When the North Manhattan Beach Business Improvement District conducted interviews for the first coordinating director in the history of the fledgling organization — in which the businesses themselves agreed to a small tax to fund improvements in their district — one candidate stood out as more prepared and with an almost dizzyingly diverse resume. Villarreal came to the interview with a logo she’d created for North MB, and the draft of a new website with a beautiful design, and a wealth of information on nearly every business in the district.
“We were all kind of blown away by that,” said Hadley, who is a City Council representative on the BID’s board.
Villarreal came with an utterly unique array of experience. Among the highlights on her resume are positions as tour accountant for Tom Petty, personal and executive assistant for the Beastie Boys, artist manager for the Foo Fighters and Rage Against the Machine, publisher of a Lollapalooza festival magazine, event coordinator for New Mexico State University, early intervention and education advocate for kids on the autism spectrum and their families, and founding administrator and facilities manager for the Westside Innovative School House charter school. Along the way she also established a non-profit organization serving the Wiseburn School District and established its Makerspace program.
In an interview, Villarreal said that she learned something from each and every experience. “Wisdom you get in many places, and utilize it in lots of different situations,” she said
In North Manhattan Beach, she hopes to utilize a fundamental piece of wisdom that has been essential at every stop along the way, which is the transforming power of community.
“I spent the last 12 years working in education, and what I felt was super important that I was most passionate about was building community,” she said. “And I believe with a strong community everything flourishes…Community and family — I feel like that just strengthens everything, because then you have your neighborhood supporting your businesses, and you have your businesses supporting your schools. You know, it’s just all so symbiotic. And without that kind of effort to build community, it doesn’t just happen naturally. It really takes facilitation. So I’m really excited about what we can do together in North Manhattan Beach.”
Hadley is excited by the entire effort underway with the BID, which was only established in January, and which she says is “cookin’ with gas” by generating new momentum throughout the pandemic, with new palm trees, new lighting, a new photo spot, and a public art piece in the works. Kim also noted that four new businesses have opened in recent months. Hadley, who lives in the neighborhood, believes Villarreal is the final ingredient needed to make the district truly jell.
“Felicia coming on board will cement the recent BID gains and expand on them tremendously,” she said. “Her enthusiasm for MB and our private sector is infectious. We now have our long-sought power trio in Kelly, Jill, and Felicia working together to help our MB private sector be as profitable and successful as possible.”