By Randy Kraft, Special to the Independent
Attend a Laguna Beach planning meeting or a fundraising or arts event and you’re likely to mix with philanthropists and activists that have shaped the city’s future for decades.
“You see the same 40 people all the time,” says Aaron Talarico, founder of Laguna NextGen, an independent organization urging civic and philanthropic participation and a social networking group for young business people and professionals. “We want to see new faces.”
NextGen, not to be confused with GenNext or Generation X, the demographic born between 1980 and 1990, claims no agenda, rather a desire for a greater presence.
“We want the next generation to have what we had growing up – a tight knit community where people support each other,” says Lea Abel-Stone, a fourth generation Lagunan who says the members of the group learned from powerful role models. “It’s in our DNA to be involved.”
“Our peers will have a voice or sit on the sidelines,” says Meghan MacGillivray-Weil, who hopes to recruit new members on city committees, which have little turnover, and local boards, which can benefit from fresh blood. She and NextGen member Nicole Anderson are directors of the Laguna Beach Community Foundation and founder Talarico serves on the Chamber of Commerce board.
For the most part, NextGen has used their time to hold fundraisers on behalf of local non-profits, with a focus on the homeless, the environment and the local radio station, as well as attending city council meetings to get a better handle on what’s going on.
Mayor Steve Dicterow noted their presence at a recent meeting and Sian Poeshl, cultural arts manager, invited them to meet with cultural arts planning consultants.
Some of their activist elders applaud their efforts. “Laguna is so fortunate to have NextGen focused on our future. Decisions made today will determine the town they inherit. We need their voices, ideas and vision,” says City Council member Toni Iseman.
“It’s great to finally see our younger community getting involved with how the city works and I personally look forward to working with them to make a more beautiful Laguna Beach. Bravo!” says developer Sam Goldstein.
Of NextGen’s core members, four grew up here and four married Laguna natives. In addition to Talarico, his wife Catherine, Abel-Stone and MacGillivray-Weil, the group includes Anderson, Kate MacGillivray, Katrina Puffer, and Danielle Ward-Schuster. They do not consider themselves preservationists, although there is a note of nostalgia to their rhetoric.
“This town is down-to-earth: a little funky and with a lot of charm,” says Magillivray-Weil. “We’d like to keep it that way, although we’re not opposed to development.”
Talarico says it’s easy to talk about a village atmosphere, but hard to pull off. He cites the rise of on-line shopping and on-demand transportation as the most prominent trends shaping the future of the downtown.
“We are the last generation to grow up here before the MTV show,” says Talarico. “That’s when everything changed, with soaring home prices and crowds.”
The reality series “Laguna Beach, The Real Orange County,” aired 2004 – 2006 and early on was narrated by then high-school student Lauren Conrad.
Ashley Johnson of Visit Laguna Beach, the city’s promoter, concurs. “I believe MTV put us on the map. We saw an influx in visitors’ center traffic, and parents said the children wanted to come because they loved the show.”
An estimated 3 million people visited Laguna annually prior to 2005, ballooning to 6 million by 2008, Johnson reports, and she says the MTV generation keeps coming. “We now see those children old enough to travel here with their friends or their young families.”
At the same time, median home prices increased by 160% to $1.8 million since 2004, two and a half times the rise in county prices during the same period, according to realtor.com.
Talarico, a real estate developer himself, expresses regret that people like his parents can no longer afford the price of entry. “A school teacher and a city planner are not going to find their way to Laguna Beach anymore.”
Befitting their generation, NextGen relies on social media to spread the word. With 1,700 followers on Facebook and 700 on Instagram, they easily attract 75 to 100 to mixers, and more to fundraisers. They communicate constantly via group texting.
“Most people won’t read a City Council or Planning Commission agenda, but they will respond to an Instagram post,” says Abel-Stone.
What’s the goal? “In the next five years, we’d like to see more young people involved and spending money locally,” says MacGillivray-Weil, who serves as production manager for her father’s company, MacGillivray-Freeman Films.
Abel-Stone, director of the Manzanita campus of Anneliese School, says young families are moving into town and she wants to engage their interest in the future. “They’re setting down roots and bringing new money. We would like that to benefit Laguna Beach.”
Randy Kraft is a freelance journalist and novelist and posts book reviews at www.ocinsite.com.