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Civics Class Acts

Roy Trowbridge
Robert Scheer

Beyond the Doors of Perception: Roy Trowbridge, president of longtime local business Palace Art and Office Supplies, and his family give back to the community in many ways, from sitting on public school and cultural boards to coaching local Little League teams.

A community is only as strong as the people who roll up their sleeves and get involved. While superstore chains may bring tax dollars to town, whether they also bring in a sense of civic duty is another story.

By Kelly Luker

THEY ARE THE FOLKS WHO RUN for city council, who clean up Soquel Creek, who help out at low-income health clinics, who coach Little League teams or offer themselves as Big Brothers or Big Sisters. They sit on boards of hundreds of local non-profits, making a difference in the lives of children, the elderly, shut-ins and the disabled. Call them what you will--volunteers, civic-minded folks, community activists--but they are the unpaid lifeblood that keeps the heart of a community beating.

Traditionally, civic leaders also have been the town's business leaders. Attorneys, real estate brokers, grocers and retailers have shown their gratitude to their customers by giving back to the community. For example, Bookshop Santa Cruz owner Neal Coonerty has served as mayor. Numerous others have served on county commissions, utility boards or advisory boards.

But the face of retail is changing--and not so gradually. Santa Cruz, for better or worse, has become an economically viable market for large superstores. Within the past few years, "big box" retailers like Costco, Toys R Us and Circuit City have made their home here, as have deep discounters like Big 5 Sports and Super Crown Books.

The big question is, then, how do the big guys stack up when it comes to civic duty? As it turns out, that discounted Michael Crichton thriller may be costing you more than you thought.

Career and Community

THERE WAS NOTHING SCIENTIFIC to this survey. We grabbed the yellow pages and dialed some of the biggest and some of the smallest retailers in town. We tried to match them up--bookstore to bookstore, sporting goods to sporting goods--you get the drift. The questions posed to owners and managers were simple: What do you give to your community, either in time or money?

We talked to the aforementioned Coonerty, who has apparently cloned himself in order to stay so involved.

"Let me see," he considers, after mentioning his mayorship. "There was city council, president of the Downtown Association, the board for Family Services Association, the Cultural Council, the Cabrillo Music Festival and I was on the steering committee for SCAN." There's more, he says, but he just can't remember everything.

For a list of those non-profits in the community that have benefited from Bookshop Santa Cruz donations, it's easier to glance through a loose-leaf binder of thank-you letters kept on the information counter. Although it only goes back to mid-1996, there are more than 60 letters indexed.

Coonerty's efforts on behalf of his community are legendary, and few could match them. But could the super citizens at Super Crown come close? Not quite. Store manager Cathy Jamieson admits she does no volunteer work. But she moved here only nine months ago and explains, "I don't know the community very well. I'd be open to doing more if I knew what could be done."

Jamieson may sincerely want to be involved, but she has a dilemma that faces virtually all managers in the larger, quickly growing chains: Transfers to different stores throughout the country can be expected as often as every year or two, a trend that forces chain-store managers to focus on their careers, not their communities.

As Mark McCalmont, "director" of the newly opened Toys R Us on Commercial Way, puts it, "I won't be staying long." McCalmont lives in Sunnyvale and says his business is still "trying to get [its] bearing on how to give to the community." But he quotes the superstore's policy: "We don't give money on a store level, just on a national level. We do large [charities] like Children's Miracle Network."

Contrast that to Pacific Avenue toy store Game A Lot, whose owners Frank and Stephanie Kaehler have had their thumbs in a few different pies over the years. Stephanie belongs to the Downtown Merchants Association and volunteers at the Art Museum. In addition, they donate toys to the Women's Crisis Center, the Beach Flats Project and the Boys' and Girls' Club.

The Kaehlers are present and accounted for--they are here to stay.

David Aue
Robert Scheer

A Good Neighbor Policy: Costco's David Aue is one big-time retailer who is active in civic involvement, contributing time to United Way, Big Brother/Big Sisters, the Delta School and other local organizations.

Pies in the Face

BEFORE TARRING ALL large retailers with the same non-involved brush, take a look at Dave Aue and Costco. At the time of our first call to him, general manager Aue was unable to come to the phone--he was busy taking pies in the face for charity. In the three years he's lived here, Aue has almost matched Coonerty's record for civic involvement at one time. He's on the United Way Board of Trustees and the Big Brother/Big Sister Board of Trustees, and he contributes time to the Delta School for high-risk youth and Above the Line, a proposed homeless teen shelter.

Costco was awarded United Way Corporation of the Year. "And," Aue adds, "I do a lot of small stuff, mainly pertaining to kids."

Cary Oliva is director of development for United Way of Santa Cruz County, a volunteer-driven, non-profit fundraising organization that distributes donations to 36 health- and human-care programs in the county. "I can call up Costco and in one phone call can get two dozen people involved as volunteers," she says. "David has set the tone for community involvement."

For Aue, giving back to his community is just smart business. "We believe [civic involvement] is important in a small town," Aue says. "I don't do these things because it's required by my job, [but] we understand the people here are our paycheck. I grew up in a small town, so it's a great honor for me [to serve]. You don't hear the term 'community' over the hill."

Ron Prillman
Robert Scheer

For the Record: Cymbaline's Ron Prillman serves on both the Downtown Commission and the New Music Works' board of directors.

Broken Records

NOW IT'S TIME to check out the office supply stores. Roy Trowbridge, president of Palace Art and Office Supply, represents one of the three families that own the longtime Santa Cruz business. He ticks off both his and his family's civic duties: Trowbridge has been on the board of directors for the Downtown Association, his father--founder of Palace--has been with the Santa Cruz Lions for 25 years, his wife is active in the Santa Cruz Gardens School, and both brothers coach Little League teams. The Trowbridge family belongs to the Art League, the Art and History Museum and the Cultural Council. Trowbridge also notes that Palace donates raffle prizes totaling "thousands" of dollars each year. "We give between 5 and 15 percent pre-tax net profit to charity," says Trowbridge. "The amount we give each year is about the same--you keep giving back to the community whether it's a banner year or not."

Palace, whose commercial offices are located on Chanticeer Avenue near the Grey Bears recycling center, also has instituted a novel program that benefits that charitable organization for seniors. When the office supply trucks deliver to customers, they also pick up any unwanted furniture and bring it back to Grey Bears for recycling or resale.

On the other hand, it appears that Staples is adept at recycling Muzak, but loves to squander precious time, judging from numerous phone calls and minutes ticking away spent on hold. After being subjected to Celine Dion, Kenny Loggins and Three Dog Night, we were finally able to connect with manager John Tenbroeck, who moved to Santa Cruz six months ago. Staples does belong to the Chamber of Commerce, notes Tenbroeck, but in response to other civic involvement responds, "Managers get transferred quite a bit."

Requests about financial support were referred to media honcho Kathy Isaac at Staples' corporate headquarters in Framingham, Mass. "We don't keep records of donations and efforts that we support," Isaac says. "I know our stores do a lot of effort at their own discretion, from photocopying to donating excess inventory." Staples, which has been open in Santa Cruz for two years, is not involved in United Way, according to Oliva.

The Unofficial Story

THE TROPHY FOR MOST unsportsmanlike conduct on the field of civic involvement goes to Big 5 sporting goods discounter, located in Capitola and Watsonville. Manager "Chris" would only say that policy does not allow him to talk to the media. A phone call to corporate headquarters in Los Angeles buys us a ticket into yet another soft-rock Muzak purgatory while we wait. And wait. And wait. Bruce Hornsby's adenoidal twang is severed mid-lyric when "Kelly" from operations finally picks up the phone.

Kelly doesn't appear to care for these nosy questions about civic involvement. "Big 5 is a privately owned company," she informs us. In other words, "No comment."

Ouch. Taking that as a well-placed (though low-cost, of course) athletic shoe to our backside, we journeyed across the street to Johnny's Sport Shop, which has been around for 36 years. Manager Dave Kerrick can't count all the schools, Little Leagues, youth soccer, basketball and softball teams the store has outfitted over the years. By the way, Big 5 is also not a team player with United Way.

Finally, a look at the folks that provide us entertainment. Blockbuster Video's district manager, Jess Adona, supervises all the video outlets in South San Jose and Monterey Bay. Adona, who lives in Santa Clara County, admits he is not involved in any civic positions for either community. When asked about financial support, Adona pauses. "We collected five or six barrelsful of toys for some local organization--I don't remember what," he says. "We don't have an official policy."

Actually, they do, unbeknownst to Adona. Oliva confirms that Blockbuster contributes to United Way.

Asked about what percent of his profits are earmarked for charity, Cymbaline Records owner Ron Prillman laughs, "What profits?" He gives time, though. Prillman was president of the Downtown Association in 1990, has served on the Downtown Commission and is on the board of directors for the New Music Works.

There's an old saying that the most democratic voting ballot is the almighty buck. Whether buying the latest John Grisham novel, a Puccini CD, a pair of Reeboks or a ream of paper for the printer, consumers would do well to think about what they are gaining--and what they are losing--when they invest in businesses that don't invest in them.

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From the April 3-9, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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