Thursday, April 10, 2008

When you dream, dream BIG

I went to a training for McDermont last night.  Brad (the city's recreation director, and co-director of McDermont) and Louis (a former Disney employee and city consultant) gave a four hour training that was essentially telling the McDermont story and trying to inspire the new hires to have the same kind of passion about the place that everyone else involved does.

I already know the McDermont story (to this point), but hearing  Brad and Louie talk brought back some great memories for me, and the reactions on the faces of the rest of the people in the room reminded me that even though Doug and I talk a lot about this project he's working on and what a massive undertaking it is, very few people truly understand the depth and scope of what this little crew of dreamers is doing--what they have already accomplished.

The McDermont Packing Co was founded in Lindsay around the turn of the century, with the owner giving the company his own last name.  It was run by him, then his son and grandson, until they sold it to another company (perhaps Sunkist, but I can't remember for sure) in the late 60s.  The packing shed was active, all the while packing oranges and/or lemons, until the early 1990s, when the company moved to another packing facility in town.  Then the building sat empty and pretty much abandoned for over a decade.

Now, where do we come into the picture?  Well, in the spring of 2004 when I was *very* "heavy with child", almost on a whim Doug decided to apply to California State Polytechnic University.  They have one of the most respected City and Regional Planning departments in the country, and we thought perhaps he could get a master's degree there in order to pursue a career in that field.  When he decided to apply, one of the people he asked to write a letter of recommendation for him was Scot Townsend, a friend from the stake who was the successful city manager of Lindsay.   The letters must've been good, because Doug was accepted to Cal Poly and that summer when we returned to California, Scot offered Doug an internship at the City to help him get his feet wet before he took off for grad school.

Now it just so happened that  that same summer, a delegation from the city of Lindsay which included (among others)  Scot and the city council was invited to Manhattan, just before Doug and I left for San Luis Obispo to start at Cal Poly.  Brad, the aforementioned city recreation director, told them, "You've got to check out Chelsea Piers while you're there."  So they did--a huge sports and recreation center created from long-abandoned old passenger piers.  One of the city councilman, Esteban "Steve" Velasquez, said, "We need a Chelsea Pier in Lindsay." Quite some time later, Steve and Scot were in a car together and drove pass the vacant McDermont Fruit Company packing shed and Steve said, "That could be our Chelsea Piers."

As soon as he said it, the wheels in Scot's head started turning.  He is an intense man of many ideas and high ideals, so when he starts on an idea, he has trouble sleeping, which was certainly the case this night.  So he got up and drove into town.   Flashlight in hand, he broke through the fence around the building and crawled inside to have a look around (the city manager breaking into buildings at night, you say?  Yes, but its a small town and the police chief happened to be one of his best friends).  The next morning he came back and brought along Brad and Burt Garzelli (the police chief)  Walking around in the first building, Scot said, "Basketball courts." Garzelli announced, "We need a cat walk up here!"   The three of them walked down to the basement, then just an empty concrete room of about 10,000 square feet where they used to gas fruit, and someone said, "Lazer tag!"   The ideas were beginning to take shape already, day later.

Doug had been working for Lindsay remotely from San Luis Obispo throughout the school year on different tasks, most of them more closely related to his training in Planning.  But as he attended school, one of the things that he was learning that would prove in the long run to be most vital, both to him and the City of Lindsay, was a computer modeling program called Sketch Up.  When we returned to the Central Valley for the summer and Doug became a full time intern again in between school years, Scot started telling him about their plans for McDermont.  The city was acquiring the two buildings--one a warehouse-like place, the other a more traditional building that had been used for sorting and packaging.  Before we took off for SLO for the second year of Doug's program, Scot started throwing a little more Doug's way as far as McDermont-related tasks,  as everyone was trying hard to figure out how to make this great idea a reality.

During our second year at Poly, Doug spent a good deal of time on Sketch Up creating a virtual model of what McDermont could be as a recreation complex, and we all hoped would be. At that point it consisted only of the first two original buildings and was a really cool idea.

When we moved to Lindsay the next spring and Doug took a permanent job with the city as an assistant city manager, he took me through McDermont for the first time.  At that point, the first building looked like the shell of what was once a warehouse rather than a warehouse--dirty and in disrepair.  It was empty, with a concrete floor typical of other packing houses.  There were no windows of any kind, and no walls to speak of at all on the east side of the building.  The packing shed was dilapidated, looking very much like what it was--a 100 year old building that had been completely neglected for 10 years.  But I had an advantage most people didn't--I walked in for the first time with the images of the virtual model in my mind, so I could see it for what it could be.

As the plans progressed, it was incredible to watch these building begin to transform.  After weeks of sanding, bleaching and varnishing, a gorgeous original hardwood floor gleamed in the packinghouse, where at first I hadn't even noticed the floor because it was so filthy.  The shell of a warehouse I had initially seen quickly became sport courts I wanted to get out and play a game of volleyball on.  That catwalk that Burt mentioned the very first day started to go up.

But then came the third building. Originally, it was going to be a small building, just big enough for a weight room, boxing ring and small gym.  But the ideas kept coming, and the plans kept growing.  Scot essentially told Doug, "I want you to design me a building".  And he did.  More than 100,000 square feet, nearly five stories high.  Its almost done now.  There is a soft opening on April 18, when the arcade in the second building will be complete, and then a Grand Opening on June 21 when the whole thing--all 172,000 square feet of family fun--will be open to the public.  It has been quite a ride, watching it all happen.  Doug was doing more and more to get it rolling and, having essentially been the primary designer, knew the building better than just about anyone, so last summer Scot moved him from assistant city manager to co-director of McDermont.  Now that third building is what takes what could be a nice, oversized community center or county wide rec center and turns it into a magical place that will hopefully become a regional destination.

From an economic development standpoint, its been a nontraditional path to say the least.  I've gone with Doug to trade shows and to receptions at conferences, and seen the looks on people's faces when they hear about the place.  "You're building a 172,000 square foot sports and recreation center in a poor town of 12,000 people, not even all that close to any major metropolitan areas?"  They always have this look of smug amusement, like they're thinking, "Wow, its sweet that your so ambitious.  Too bad reality's gonna knock you on your butt."  But all it ever takes to change anyone's mind is to get them here.  To walk them through the buildings, show them the models, and they catch the vision and they want to be a part of it. 

Its easy, especially now in the very, very busy months leading up to the grand opening, to get lost in the stress of it all--not only buildings to be built, but equipment to be ordered, software to be developed, staff to be hired and trained, technology to learn, promotions to do,  nut and bolts to fine tune everywhere.  Yet its so much bigger than all that.  Its creating something that no one else anywhere in the world has quite done yet.  Its new, it ambitious and its beautiful.  People are starting to take notice, not just around the county, but around the country.  This isn't just a project to the people involved.  Everyone of them knows in his or her heart that if it succeeds, they will have done something no else has ever done and that many would've said was impossible.  But they've found ways, through all the bumps and hiccups and twists and turns, to make it a reality.  And they believe it will be successful.  Its (so far) a 14 or 15 million dollar project, and when those doors open on June 21, its all paid for.  Redevelopment funds, grants, etc., have helped them create something spectacular without a huge debt looming over them on day one.

Everyone involved knows that this is something so much more than a rec center.  Its about watching a community reinvent itself and thrive, for one thing.  Lindsay is a small town whose economy, until now, has relied heavily on the citrus crop and has, over the years, suffered three nearly catastrophic freezes.  Each time, everyone said it would kill the town.  Each time, the town has come back up to its feet.  Here is something that diversifies the economy in our small town, while at the same time honoring and embracing the heritage we have--everything in the decorating, theming and construction of the facility revolves around the citrus packing plant idea.  We want to make Lindsay better without losing sight of what made us great.  

And its a place where families can come together, and be active and have a good time.  Families are thirsty for that.  They can come and climb the rock wall, challenge each other on the Flowrider, play a soccer game, chase each other around the 10,000 square foot lazer tag basement.  They can have their birthday parties there, inside the trunk of a five story giant sequoia tree.  They can come watch a boxing match or work out at the gym.  Come hit a bucket of balls at the driving range or the batting cages.  The range of activities and cool "stuff" is incredible.  And they will make sure that the employees are the kind of people who make your visit worthwhile and make you want to come again.

A huge inspiration for everyone involved has been Walt Disney.  The man was a true innovator in so many ways.  If you don't know much about him, you should read up on him, because he was just incredible in his drive and ambition and vision--whether it was in animation, film, sound, theme parks or what have you.  He was a just magnificently talented in seeing possibilities that others often could not see.  Every time I see someone make that face that says, "You're cute, but nuts," because a small town in central California is a bad place for a 3 acre, one of a kind fun and entertainment center, I remember that pretty much everyone thought the an orange grove in the tiny town of Anaheim was a horribly ridiculous place for a theme park (an idea that was in itself pretty new) and that 40 acres of swamp land in Florida was even worse.  But you know what?  Not only have those places survived, they have become the two of the most popular destinations in the world.  Now, we're no Disneyland, that's for sure, but Disney definitely got one thing right: sometimes, dreams do come true.  If you're willing to put enough faith and hard work into an idea, you can make it a reality.  I understand a little better now one of the most famous things Walt Disney said:  "Its kind of fun to do the impossible."

1 comment:

Sam and Kurtis said...

i think they need to get this story out to somewhere like the today show or something just a bit before the opening. its a miraculous story and it might bring some more people into see it. even just sharing your story. Do it becky!!!