Community Voices
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Korean Bell of Friendship (photo: John Mattera Photography)

Serving as board chair of the San Pedro Peninsula Chamber of Commerce has been a highlight to my life here in San Pedro. I am honored, grateful, and humbled by the opportunity. However, the timing couldn’t be better for my friend and colleague John Bagakis to step into the role and expand his positive impacts on our community. 

John is dedicated to San Pedro, from expanding arts and events to advocating for union labor and a commonsense approach to development. John currently serves the community as vice chair of the chamber, vice chair of Encore Theatre Group, Harbor Area planning commissioner, a member of the board of directors of Little Italy of Los Angeles, and San Pedro’s second favorite honorary mayor. As the general manager of Big Nick’s Pizza, John has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for San Pedro charities and nonprofits and was one of the first to feed essential workers during the pandemic. 

As much recognition as one gets as the board chair, everyone knows the real work gets done by President and CEO Elise Swanson. She has elevated the chamber’s role in the community in a time when so many chambers of commerce have had to close. Elise centralized resources for local businesses to get loans, health information, legal advice, and tools to move their operations online. John Bagakis said at the beginning of the pandemic, “I refuse to see a single San Pedro restaurant fail.” Elise Swanson is responsible for helping many restaurants, nonprofits, and small businesses survive economic collapse during these tough times.

Elise is amazing at recruiting resources to San Pedro through her other roles as well. She serves as chair of the South Bay Association of Chambers of Commerce and through BizFed, she is co-chair of the Small Business, Labor & Employment. Elise strongly advocates at city council and the County Board of Supervisors meetings. I remember us leaving a quality-of-life meeting where we made a list of solutions for the homeless encampment at the post office. We immediately walked over to our congresswoman’s office to put our ideas into action. Elise stayed on task week after week and month after month until we got what we needed. Her tireless efforts often go unrecognized, and I want to thank her for her indomitable spirit.

We have a number of board members and committee chairs at the chamber who inspire us as well. Tim McOsker was the board chair before me, so I was worried if I could fill his shoes. The answer was clear from the beginning — not even close. Tim is the best. He is running for Council District 15 right now, because being president of the PBID and being on the boards of the chamber, Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Center San Pedro, and the Bridge Cities Alliance, all while being CEO of AltaSea — the largest potential job creator and Blue Economy incubator we have in San Pedro — isn’t enough. Tim is responsible for so many things, including the outdoor restaurant platforms we now have in San Pedro. Few people know how hard he had to fight for this, along with Joe Buscaino’s office. They were able to help San Pedro thrive during the pandemic and laid the groundwork for other cities to follow.

Ryan Blaney, the business and intellectual property attorney of Bolimini International, and Farmers Insurance Agent Nick Warnock worked together to create Breakfast with the Chamber, now one of the best networking groups in the South Bay. Bruce Heyman led members outreach during the pandemic to check on our members and see how we could help. His efforts actually increased our membership while other organizations were losing members. The chamber suffered financially, just like everyone else. Ross O’Brien, CPA at Servatius, O’Brien & Fong, LLP, serves as treasurer of the chamber. His bean-counting, cost-cutting, and sense of humor have been important contributions in keeping this organization afloat. 

Icons in our community — Yolanda Regalado, Sirens Java & Tea; Mona Sutton, the Omelette & Waffle Shop; Liz Schindler-Johnson, Grand Vision Foundation; Mandy Barton, The Chori-Man; and Pam Botis, Cabrillo Beach Yacht Club — have kept the chamber focused on the needs of our small businesses and nonprofits. Their contributions and perspectives really help guide us forward in a positive and long-lasting way. The importance of the Port of L.A. to our local economy cannot be overstated. Board members Augie Bezmalinovich and Mike Galvin keep us informed, take the hard questions, and listen to feedback from the business community. These two have opened the door to new opportunities for San Pedro in terms of jobs, entertainment, and economic development. Much of the feedback for the port comes from visionary Ann Carpenter. She is the chief innovation officer for CD15. Ann advocates for the high-paying, Blue Economy jobs for San Pedro, along with resources for San Pedro that will help us thrive as a community.

Erica Thorne from the DoubleTree by Hilton will be our next vice chair. She and John will work closely to bring back our favorite events, like the Spirit of San Pedro Holiday Parade, as well as positioning us to make the most of the tourist dollars coming back to San Pedro. As a Discover L.A. ambassador, the San Pedro Chamber is working hard to speed the recovery from tourism. Long time members Olga Chavez of Marathon Petroleum, Ken Dami of Phillips 66, Denise Eastburn of Providence Little Company of Mary, Moises Figueroa of SA Recycling, Ryan Guthrie of Holland Partner Group, Lauren Johnson from Jerico Development, and Dan Salas of Harbor Breeze Cruises represent major Harbor Area employers and are major charitable donors to the businesses and nonprofits that keep this town running. Lastly, I would like to thank Charuni Patibanda and Melveen Stevenson who moved away and continue to stay connected. Big love and so much respect to the men and women who continue to contribute to San Pedro in deep and significant ways. Thank you for allowing me to serve alongside you. spt

Lee Williams

Lee Williams leads The Lee Williams Real Estate Group at REAL Broker and is a Los Angeles Harbor Commissioner. He also serves on the board of directors for Boys & Girls Clubs of the LA Harbor, the San Pedro Chamber of Commerce, Harbor Connects, and the San Pedro Education Foundation. He can be reached at