Morro Bay Chamber of Commerce: And the 2023 Honorees are…

Written by Judy Salamacha

April 7, 2023

Do you have your reservations for the 2023 Gala presented by the Morro Bay Chamber of Commerce on April 21 at the Community Center? This year’s theme, “Morro Bay in Wonderland,” prompted some wonderment. Indulge me in some Jabberwocky! The popular British author Lewis Carroll pondered his 1860s society through the eyes of a teen named Alice, who follows a White Rabbit down a rabbit hole only to discover challenges and strangeness. 

Since 2020 we have lived through challenges and strangeness – worldwide pandemic and lately atmospheric river flooding. I imagined Alice rattled and re-awakened by the latest earthquakes in Turkey and Syria. What would she discover if that rabbit hole time-traveled her to Morro Bay’s Gala – the annual “big night out” trading conversations with 200 of the region’s most influential stakeholders, sampling local cuisine and adult beverages, enjoying modern live music, and investing in a silent auction must-have. Would Alice recognize the worthiness of Morro Bay’s 2023 “best of the best” community honorees; Citizen of the Year, Business and Nonprofit of the Year, and Morro Bay’s Living Treasure.  

“There you are again, pesky White Rabbit,” Alice said. Still sporting his waistcoat and focused on his pocket watch, White Rabbit rambled, “Oh, dear! Oh, dear! I shall be too late!” Compelled Alice followed him down a rabbit hole. “What are we almost too late for?” she asked him. “The universe is sending me signs,” he answered. “I must find the “best of the best” and I’m told they might do their positivity work in a fishing village called Morro Bay.”

“I will follow you,” Alice said. “I agree it is time our world replaces its weirdness with some joy and positivity. Besides I’m very hungry. I wonder what the locals serve to eat at a gala?” But the White Rabbit was already dodging rockslides on Highway 41. They arrived just in time for CEO/President Erica Crawford to announce the honorees – surely “the best of the best.”

Morro Bay Business of the Year: Congratulations to The Shell Shop, owned and operated by Dave and Justine Thomas for more than 70 years at the same Embarcadero location. Indeed, a tourism magnet and locals’ marine education center totally focused on shells from around the world.

As whimsical as Alice and White Rabbit, a young Dave Thomas loved shells. At age 10 he set up his first “shell stand” on the corner of Morro and Marina. He sold abalone shells and made $100 that day. He was forever hooked on shells. He and Justine traveled the world in their earlier years establishing relationships with procurers of shells making lifelong friends and being ambassadors for Morro Bay.

“We are told we are the largest shell shop on the West Coast,” Thomas said guesstimating more than1000 species of shells available, offering tens-of-thousands of shells retailed in the shop or stored in Thomas’ warehouses. “All of our shells are caught for food. The shells are simply the bi-products. Customers travel here from all over the world. Many say they bought shells at The Shell Shop when they were kids and their kids have saved their pennies to buy their vacation souvenirs.”

In 1947 Thomas was three when his parents, Lawrence and Louise Thomas, moved to Morro Bay. “Dad was a fisherman and during World War II he contracted with the Navy to fish the Pacific Coast.” During a respite from stormy seas, Lawrence discovered Morro Bay when it was sunny and beautiful. Dave was in the first graduating class of Morro Bay High School. He married the love of his life Justine, who traded her life in Beverly Hills working at the William Morris Talent Agency to travel the world seeking shells and living and loving the life as shopkeepers in Morro Bay.

Alice mused, “White Rabbit, there is so much more to this story. I will not be too late ever again to hear more stories!”

Morro Bay Citizen of the Year: Congratulations to Bonnie Jones. There is not much Bonnie Jones wouldn’t do for Morro Bay, the community she adopted post retirement from a catering career in Arizona. After all, she co-presented the first ever SLO County Anti-Human Trafficking Summit before she discovered her passion project, the Morro Bay Maritime Museum.

Fellow MBMM board members will attest how she dove totally into the dream. Even before the grand opening, Bonnie helped fund the museum’s 2016 capital campaign, 1542 Navigator Circle. Not only did she and husband Frank become early members and promoters for the emerging museum, but she created and operated the ongoing memorial brick and bench programs.

Bonnie and a small, but diligent crew, literally opened the doors to the museum offering free visits for tourists and locals to learn about Morro Bay’s rich maritime history and its strong affiliation with the United States Navy. She dedicated most of her waking hours to keep the lights on at the museum while building its unique maritime gift store. Bonnie would never say she did this alone. The MBMM Board of Directors and supporters are a team, but they are first to admit she has been MBMM’s energizer bunny. Next on her agenda? MBMM will again host San Diego Maritime Museum’s replica galleon, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo’s San Salvador August 11-20. Since the City of Morro Bay has approved MBMM’s next growth spurt, public tours of the galleon will help fund the expansion.

But Morro Bay’s most magical day ever was Bonnie’s brainchild. The 2022 Morro Bay Maritime Family Fun Day hosted at MBMM was free to participants and free to the public. It was a day that started with the whimsical collaboration with the Morro Bay Rotary Ducky Derby. When the race was won, a free family fun day at MBMM featured local musicians, maritime food by restaurants and nonprofits, and parents and kids voting for their favorite chowder and blueberry muffin. Kids learned from fisherman, the Yacht Club, shop owners and the Salinan Tribe members about maritime life in Morro Bay. Everyone stepped up with their own ideas, activity and even free souvenirs.   

“I need to thank this amazing lady for showing me what community collaboration means,” said Alice to White Rabbit.

Morro Bay Living Treasure: Congratulations to Cathy Novak, who served on Morro Bay’s City Council until she gave up her seat to run successfully for Mayor of Morro Bay circa 2005. After she completed her public service, she spent a decade or more helping business navigate their way through city and county government planning processes. Her consulting business consistently advocated for new business development always representing the best interests of both clients — city officials and the community. She earned respect with her positive intentions. Early in her career she said, “I believe in moderate, planned growth. It’s important that we have some growth.”

She has maintained that policy throughout her career representing a variety of clients – local shop owners, restaurants and corporations, all hoping to become a contributing Morro Bay neighbor both to its economy and its well established lifestyle. Her stated goal for her clients has always been, “We are all just asking to be treated fairly.”

Alice told White Rabbit she was impressed. “Steady steers the ship” might be heard from a fisherman. This Cathy Novak respected others consistently and so earned back others’ respect.”   

Nonprofit of the Year: Morro Bay Project Surf Camp helps an amazing number of children, young adults with disabilities.  The City of Morro Bay Recreation Department has partnered with Project Surf Camp for years. Led by Camp Director C/O John Taylor, PSC is a 501(c)(3) charitable and educational, nonprofit organization designed specifically for individuals with special needs. The intent and stated goal is as follows: “While great strides have been made in recent years to increase access to goods and services for special needs individuals, opportunities for leisure or recreational activities are often still difficult to access. Sometimes it is forgotten, especially living on the coast, that not everyone has experienced the ocean. One group that has been deprived of such a privilege is those persons with disabilities. PSC hopes to introduce people to the water who would otherwise never receive such an opportunity. PSC uses surfing, the beach, and other ocean activities as an educational modality to build self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-efficacy in individuals with special needs. PSC further provides opportunities to build social skills, improve physical fitness, develop healthy outlets for stress reduction, and foster independence.”  

“Did I really fall down a rabbit hole, White Rabbit?” Alice asked. “Or did you lead me to discover a magical place called Morro Bay, California. It has so much potential to be the “best of the best” communities in all the world because it has the heart to encourage the “best of the best” people and programs. Hmmm! I think I just might stay here and mingle awhile at Gala 2023.” 

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