By Nancy Gross
“This is very nice, very special,” said Ojai Studio Artist Ruth Farnham early Thursday evening, and indeed, the third Annual Ojai Valley Chamber of Commerce Awards Gala allowed chamber members to unwind, have fun and socialize in elegant comfort at the Ojai Valley Inn and Spa.
And to wear some fancy clothes. Chamber president Bob Kemper of Troop Real Estate said, “I don’t think I can recall seeing so many well-dressed people in Ojai, especially at the same time.”
Yet, coupled with the pleasures of talking and mingling, the gala is a significant opportunity for businesses to be invigorated by the work ethic, innovations and successes of one another. Monthly chamber mixers fulfill these aims also.
Kemper said, “The six businesses that will be recognized represent only a small segment of the excellent businesses in the Ojai Valley. This is an important event for all, a congratulatory event.”
The gala was also a time to reflect on the year. Roberta Raye of Made in Ojai said “I just keep thinking of where I was last year compared to this year. Right after this event we formed the co-op, and the chamber has been so supportive.”
The chamber’s chief executive officer Scott Eicher offered a statistic that testifies to the tenacity and forward thinking of Ojai business owners. After last year’s gala, the chamber held a series of workshops to help businesses cope creatively while facing a nationwide economic recovery. Eicher said that according to Bruce Stenslie, of the Economic Development Collaborative of Ventura County, the rest of the county had similar programs going, but Ojai’s were the best attended.
Additionally, it was mentioned that chamber services provide for many needs of nonmember businesses by default. “We are the voice of business in the Ojai Valley.”
During the cocktail hour some guests shared their thoughts about how they are managing while the economy moves sluggishly toward health. Interior designer Philip Brocious of Kava said, “I’ve been doing a lot of redesign which involves rearranging and fine tuning, suggesting paint colors. I charge per room and it is a lot about making suggestions.” He said it allows people to make small changes to their surroundings, and make purchases over time. “It shifts the energy completely and it spreads throughout the house.”
Amy Segovia, front office manager at The Ojai Valley Inn and Spa said the inn benefited from Valentine’s Day being on a long President’s Day weekend, and that spring break is about to start, and, due to different school schedules, it will cover many weeks.
Segovia added, “Guests enjoy going into town. We compliment the city and the city compliments us.”
After chatting, drinks, appetizers and photographs, Steve Vera’s large group of employees and family from Smart Technology Enablers, who offer managed services for computer networks, posed for a shot by one of the inn’s fireplaces, the guests moved over to the awards ceremony.
Before the awards were given to six businesses who had won through a balloting process, Eicher recognized his executive assistant Shannon Allen, who has gone above and beyond in her 10 years with the chamber, “improving the weekly e-blast and website, helping both the Lions and Woman’s Clubs meet their financial goals, changing the business and shopping map from a two-color map to a four-color map,” and creating an interactive online map that a visitor on the way to Ojai can access to navigate into and around town. Allen was awarded a spa day at Spa Ojai.
Roger Phelps handled the video and audio, as each of the three nominees in each category had been taped in their businesses by Olga and Aaron Singer, often speaking about the honor of being chosen, the privilege of working in Ojai and the benefits of working with the chamber.
The first category, Small Business of the Year, recognized a for-profit, locally owned business with no more than 10 employees, with an innovative approach to customer service. Emily Sandefur of Heritage Financial presented, and Feast Bistro took the prize.
Susan Coulter, chef and co-owner of Feast Bistro with Beryl Schwartz, accepted the award and said, “We’re all in this together. We rely on each other. We need each other. It’s important to be a part of the community. The chamber is the way to go” She especially thanked the merchants in the Arcade, and said, “I hope we’re around for a long time after this.”
The next honor was presented by Eicher, and Ojai Valley Directory’s Ren Adam, for the best Environmentally Conscious Business, and E.J. Harrison and Sons was chosen. Myron Harrison, the owner, who said he began driving a trash truck in 1965, accepted and also said, “I’d like to thank the chamber and the city of Ojai for all their efforts. “This is a family business. We love this valley,” Harrison said.
The Entrepreneurial Spirit award, presented by Kathy Hartley of the Ojai Theatre and the Lavender Inn, and Olga Singer of Graphics Unlimited, went to Lara Moga of Casa Bella residential care for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. Her moving acceptance speech brought silence to everyone else in the room. She began, “I’m the luckiest person in the world because I get to take care of people.”
She thanked her father for his “grace and courage under unbelievable circumstances,” and told him repeatedly that she loved him, and that he had given her a great life. She also said, “Nobody gets anywhere alone. My husband Dorulet is my rock. As an engineer, he built Casa Bella for me.” She added some special phrases to Dorulet in Romanian, and lastly acknowledged her father one more time for being someone who “showed me you could do anything in life. He always asked, ‘why not?’”
The Tourism Development Award was given by Janis Clapoff, managing director for the Ojai Valley Inn and Spa, and Dave Brubaker, president and CEO of Ojai Community Bank. Ojai Studio Artists won in this category.
OSA president Linda Taylor accepted the honor and said “I’m very excited. We’ve had our open studio tour for 27 years. The chamber helps us so much. They sell our tickets. I want to thank Scott in particular. He is such a great support and always gives us so many great suggestions.”
The Heart of Ojai award was then given to a nonprofit chamber member offering enhanced quality of life for those living in the Ojai Valley. The Ojai Valley Youth Foundation took the honor, and Dan Burrell, interim executive director and Meg Wall, program manager accepted.
Burrell said, “I so wish that Cindy Jones was here,” and he commended her for her outstanding fundraising ability, saying that at a recent luncheon she was able to “raise 45,000 in one hour and 15 minutes, from this community, in this economy.”
Burrell also said that Wall “began with the Youth Foundation when she was 12 years old, and is now our amazing program director,” and Wall expressed thanks for the way the valley supports its teens.
The final award was the Cornerstone Award, given to a chamber member with more than 10 employees, making an investment to grow business in the valley. Dawn Shook, executive officer of the Ojai Board of Realtors, and Martha Dowden, branch manager for Los Padres Bank, presented the award to Rains Department Store.
Alan Rains was videotaped saying the store began in 1914. He kept his comments brief, expressing appreciation and thanks. “We’re not new to the block. We are a specialty department store. We are honored and humbled. Being a chamber member for more years than I remember is an asset to us.”
Throughout the evening, chamber members returned to the topic of tourism, and enthusiasm was expressed for the work of the chamber in securing $160,000 from the city of Ojai to begin a public relations and marketing campaign for Ojai as a tourist destination. Ruth Ballin’s PR firm has been chosen for this enterprise. Ballin currently oversees the Ojai Playwright’s Conference.