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New Blood

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Santa Cruz Next is on a roll. But can it lure in enough young people to become more prominent in local civic life?

On a warm Tuesday night in Santa Cruz, as the season turns to autumn, dozens of Santa Cruzans are gathered at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center to watch Barack Obama and John McCain bicker with each other and interrupt moderator Tom Brokaw in the second televised presidential debate.

A buzz of excitement permeates the room. It can only be described as the rare, electric effect of when people are really turned on by politics.  Such moments happen occasionally in history, and the 2008 election has proven to be one of them.  But the crowd here at the Kuumbwa didn’t come just to listen to the presidential contenders. They came for what will happen at the jazz center after the old elephant and donkey throw in the towel for the night. They came to hear from their own, local political candidates.

The gathering is a city council candidate forum hosted by Santa Cruz Next, an organization that is determined to get more twenty- and thirtysomethings involved in Santa Cruz civic life. The Obama/McCain debate plays during cocktail hour, while SC Next members, attendees of various ages and city council candidates rub elbows and savor a spread of cheeses and nuts. The national debate in the background warms them up for the discussion of local politics to follow.

Laura Booth, a SC Next co-founder and one of the event’s planners, thought that holding the forum on debate night would help channel the excitement over the national election into the race in our own backyard.

“I’ve seen most of the local energy, especially from young people, focused on the national election,” Booth says. “This is a really good opportunity to link the larger national movement with what is going on locally, and to engage an entirely new demographic that wouldn’t necessarily think ‘Oh, city council, that’s so sexy. I totally want to vote for that.’”

The forum managed to attract many young voters, certainly more than Booth has ever seen at any other city council event. “We definitely beat every other city council forum by at least three times,” she says.

The turnout at the organization’s seventh event since it launched in early 2007 is a testament to what Booth and the rest of SC Next are trying to do with the 25 to 44-year-old demographic in Santa Cruz, which, as their motto notes, is to get them “informed, involved and inspired.”

Alone in the Sandbox

According to the 2000 census, the median age in Santa Cruz is 31.7 years of age, with the highest percentage of residents (17.1 percent) between the ages of 25 and 34, followed by 15.5 percent between 34 and 44 years. The biggest commonality that the SC Next founders saw amongst this age group was that, contrary to the statistics, they felt quite alone. Jeffrey Kongslie, the director of development for physical and biological sciences at UCSC and co-owner of Vinocruz, joined SC Next because it was the first prominent means of interacting with his peers.

“Before [Santa Cruz Next] we didn’t know each other existed,” Kongslie says. “We were isolated even though we’re the largest demographic in Santa Cruz. We don’t get a lot of these opportunities to meet people.”

According to Booth, this segregation was the group’s biggest concern. “Everybody had their little set of seven to 10 friends that they would hang out with on Friday and Saturday nights,” she says. “But it was always the same people, and those little groups weren’t ever interacting. We wanted to bring all of our groups together and see what happens.”

The founders’ fundamental desire for SC Next was that it would be a space to congregate the post-student/pre-retirement crowd, all of whom were vying for something more: more friends, more say, more people in power who addressed their concerns. They realized that all of this was possible as one, omnipresent group.

“Since Santa Cruz Next has gotten started we’ve had dozens of people in our generation get off their butts and start applying to local positions in government and industry, to local boards and organizations,” says Sean Tario, a SC Next member who works for a tech company over the hill. “That’s a testament to what we’re trying to make happen.”

The group is not a political party. You won’t hear a single one of them endorse any candidate on behalf of SC Next. They don’t push a political agenda. They push to get people political. And it’s working.

“We now have a Santa Cruz Next member on almost every city advisory board,” says Mayor Ryan Coonerty, a SC Next co-founder. “You have a younger perspective now shaping city policy. We don’t agree on everything, and there is no ideology to it, but just to have that perspective is incredibly important.”

For Booth it was about the chance to make a difference. As a politics major at UC Santa Cruz from 2002 to 2005, she became increasingly entrenched in many city issues but soon discovered a disparity of students in local politics. It became very apparent when a seemingly nice woman sat beside her at a city event. “When she found out I went to UCSC she said ‘Why are you even here? Why are you at a political fundraiser? You guys obviously don’t care,’” Booth recalls. “I was really offended because I really do care about this city and I do want to stay here and make it work.”

Certain “student” stigmas didn’t hinder Booth’s involvement, nor did the fact that she was often the youngest person attending civic functions. “It was me and a bunch of 50- and 60-year-olds,” she says. If anything these hurdles spurred her on. She was determined to get more people in her age group to participate. Her dedication to the greater community soon overshadowed her university life, causing her to leave the City on a Hill for the city below half way through her junior year in 2005. “I was wondering why I was going to school anymore when I was so much more interested in community engagement and getting people involved,” she says.

But if Booth thought she was lonely as the only person her age getting involved in city affairs, she felt even more isolated after her college friends graduated and moved away. Although she didn’t graduate herself, she witnessed the annual exodus of thousands of bright young students who opted to go to bigger cities that had more jobs and better housing. Booth may have felt the loss of her friends, but she also felt it for the city, often regarded as an uninviting place for young people to begin their careers.

“It was really depressing that all of my friends who were leaving were saying ‘I love Santa Cruz, it’s a shame to leave but I just can’t afford to live here, I can’t get a job that pays well enough and I can’t find a house. I just can’t make it work,’” she says. “As opposed to being part of the problem and running away, I basically said ‘OK, I’m going to stick it out and fight.’”

Her weapon: SC Next.

Forming the group made Santa Cruz a better place for her, and she hopes that it will do the same for others. “I’m still here, and hopefully there are others who will stay so I don’t have to find a new group of friends again!” she says, laughing.

She doesn’t have to look any farther than fellow board member Crystal Birns for validation. Birns came to Santa Cruz in 2000, but after only seven years felt compelled to leave.

“I always felt like it’s hard for people in our demographic to feel like we’re making a change here,” she says. “There are a lot of college students and there are a lot of people who have been here for generations, but there isn’t a lot of clarity on what the inbetweeners are doing.”

Her inclination to bounce out of town dissipated after she attended SC Next’s transportation-themed event in early 2007.

“It’s been a total breath of fresh air,” she says. “I was ready to leave Santa Cruz. I didn’t feel that it was a place that would be able to support my life for the next 10 years. Being a part of SC Next has been a huge part of making me feel like there is a place for living a long-term life in this town.”

Birns, who serves as the arts co-ordinator for the City of Santa Cruz, is now the event planner for SC Next.

Booth didn’t develop this “breath of fresh air” all on her lonesome. Coincidentally, while she was scheming on how to round up her peers for the sake of making new friends and sparking community involvement, a handful of other locals were following similar pursuits. Caleb Baskin, a partner in the law firm Baskin and Grant, was hoping to launch a networking group for young professionals. Zach Friend, spokesperson for the Santa Cruz Police Department, was also interested in jumpstarting involvement. And Mayor Ryan Coonerty was wondering how to simply bring the demographic together.

Eventually, they compared notes and joined forces to address these unmet needs. So, in February of 2007, Booth, Baskin, Coonerty and Friend began SC Next.

More than a year later, the organization is still in the development stages. It is currently designing bylaws that will mandate the number of board members, but for now there are a dozen people who sit on the board. The only other indication of membership is a 600-person e-mailing list and the amount of people who show up to SC Next-sponsored events, which are held four times a year. The group fashions the events, which have boasted themes like transportation, changing demographics and the arts, based on survey responses indicating hot topic issues.

Coonerty compares their model to user-defined social networking websites like Facebook and MySpace where membership input navigates and molds the site. For him, meeting the demographic’s needs is more important than appearing unsettled.

“I love that it’s user defined, and I’m totally comfortable with it being ever-changing to whatever people want,” he says, adding that a big difference between SC Next and comparable online communities is that it is a real-life networking opportunity for a highly virtual generation. “There is a lot of value in people still being able to sit down and see each other.”

Live Here, Work Here, Stay Here

It’s Oct.1 and the opening day at NextSpace, a new downtown business co-owned by Coonerty, Baskin and Jeremy Neuner. Located above Pacific Wave on Cooper Street, the co-owners are confident that their business will help rejuvenate the local economy. The plan of action involves simply providing the necessary workspace and networking opportunities for anyone who wants them.

Several tenants have already rented their piece of “nextspace,” and yet the maze of offices are vacant except for the occasional computer and printer. But once these renters settle in, the place will be buzzing with web start-up companies, a PR firm, independent film producers, freelancers and more. The owners are sure that more will soon join.

Although the three founders are all SC Next boardmembers and the name sounds similar, NextSpace claims no affiliation with SC Next. The idea for the company was, however, born out of SC Next connections and brainstorming among the business-minded.  Their reasoning seemed just: they saw too many skilled people struggle to find a good job in town, heard too many complaints about long Silicon Valley commutes, and watched too many hands go up in a gesture of defeat over the lack of economic opportunity.

The Employment Development Department of the State of California reports in its Santa Cruz County Projection that 21,540 Santa Cruz County residents commute to Santa Clara County alone for work. In addition to creating Santa Cruz’s largest carbon footprint, Coonerty feels that the daily trek over Highway 17 leaves a big hole in the heart of the city.

“If they are driving over the hill and back that means they have less time to coach soccer teams, go to city council meetings and to be involved in cultural events,” he says. “The more people you have doing that, the less social capital you’ve created in the community to create a sustainable one. Our biggest challenge as a community is to make Santa Cruz a place where people can live, work, shop, raise their kids, retire—to make it more than a bedroom community for the valley.”

According to Coonerty, NextSpace and other recent local projects create a necessary infrastructure that allows people to both live and work in Santa Cruz. He cites the live/work industrial venture at 2120 Delaware Avenue and the “food cluster” at the old Lipton’s building, where the city is building a conventional and an organic kitchen for small food businesses to share in order to help cut costs of running their small businesses.

As someone who still travels to San Francisco for business two to three times a week, SC “Nextie” Tario believes that these businesses have the potential to change the commuting reality that he shares with so many of his peers.

“Over the next couple of months, the next couple of years, there will be businesses popping out of this place, just by pulling all of these people together,” he says of NextSpace and other outlets.

Booth agrees. “The way I look at it, [NextSpace] is actually the poster child for what we hope would come out of Santa Cruz Next.”

Move Over, Pops

Membership surveys have consistently shown that affordable housing, job opportunity, education and the environment are the 25- to 44-year-old demographic’s priority concerns. But as that age group infiltrates the city to improve these factors—becoming elected officials, board members, business owners, commission chairs—they find themselves coming up against a reputation they don’t feel is warranted. People are assuming that SC Next is a pro-development group with ulterior motives.

“We want to clear up these misconceptions that we are a political group, that we are saying we’re pro-development or that we’re Ryan’s campaign committee—although there are a few people who serve on that committee, it’s by far not the majority of us,” says Booth. “I’ve heard that we’re out to throw out all the values that the old Santa Cruz worked for, and that’s not the case. We just want to build the economy.”

The group’s vision of bolstering the city’s economy, thereby creating a sustainable place for residents to live and work, is often understood as wanting monster developments or jobs at any cost. But these young leaders say they don’t want to build more, they simply want to capitalize on pre-existing spaces to create new opportunity.

Coonerty feels that these misunderstandings are largely generational. “It’s hugely different trying to face buying a $750,000 house in 2008 than when my dad bought his house for $30,000 in 1974,” he says. “It makes our generation a little more practical about things and more focused on economic sustainability.”

But rather than oppose these new perspectives, he says that perhaps the former generation seems “ready for another generation to step up to start getting involved.

“Next is saying ‘thank you for what you’ve done and now we’re going to continue to work on that legacy using our own experiences and our own talents,’” he adds.

Veteran city councilmember and former mayor Cynthia Mathews is thankful that the younger generation of leaders are becoming “very present,” and agrees that there is not so much a difference in values as in energy and priority. She says that while membership in SC Next isn’t a condition for being appointed or elected, “a lot of them come from that group.”

“The issues we hear over and over are housing, job opportunities and opportunities to start their own businesses,” she says. “They can become involved and they can effectively present their issues to the current decision makers, they can help shape policy. Every generation has its own life experience and cultural context, and view of the world. We know that the Santa Cruz Next generation, because of all these things, does have a different worldview. That’s only natural.”

Kongslie hopes that the rest of the community will realize that this mobilization of the younger demographic is in everyone’s best interest, from the elders of yesterday to the children of tomorrow. “Having a strong group of young people who are engaged in the civic process and in building stronger neighborhoods and improving schools and the economy—that doesn’t just help people in their thirties. It helps everyone,” he says. “As a community we all win when those things are accomplished.”

Coonerty remains optimistic. “This is a tough time in the world,” he says, “this a tough time nationally, but at the same time all the right trends are happening in Santa Cruz and many of those trends are being driven by a younger generation committed to making Santa Cruz work based on the values we all share.”

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