So, how’s business?

Ask anyone how business is going in Laguna Beach and one person

will tell you that it’s terrible and that it is all to be blamed on

Sept. 11. But the person sitting next to them might say it’s doing



In a time when Wall Street has sent families running for the hills

with the remains of their retirement, 27% more homes were sold in

Laguna compared to last year, the picture is puzzling.

“Honestly I hear both sides,” said Anne Morris, executive director


of the Laguna Chamber of Commerce. “There’s concern because of the

media-driven message of doom and gloom but you look around and see

people who are doing fine.”

Although exact figures are not yet available for hotel or retail

taxes, Morris has noticed a stronger than usual return on the

chamber’s business survey that asks members what services they need

to be more successful. Based on that data, the chamber will continue

to build its Meet the Experts brown bag lunch series that is set to


begin at the end of September. Pointing to the chamber’s monthly

mixer, the annual Laguna Business Expo and the joint partnership with, Morris encourages business owners to take

advantage of the opportunities to reap greater profits.

“ received 70,000 unique hits last month and 85% of

the viewers will visit Laguna within 90 days,” she said. “That

partnership alone has brought $2 million in revenue.”

Still, without concrete fact how do we really know if the economy


is up or down? The Coastline Pilot went to the businesses themselves

and profiled three different sectors of Laguna’s economy: retail,

service and nonprofit.

Honest In Deed

Sunset Terrace on a late weekday morning sings not only with the

sweet trilling of birds or the laughter of children playing in the

yard. The whisper of the beach is punctuated by the steady beat of a

hammer and pierced by the whine of a drill. For some that cacophony

is a nuisance, but for Mike Morris, owner of J.M. Morris Construction

it’s the music of healthy business.

“I stay consistently busy all the time,” he said. “The sky is not

falling for us because construction and real estate are doing great.”

Morris moved out to Laguna with his wife Anne and his construction

company 12 years ago from Kansas City. With more than 30 years

experience in the business, he knows a thing or two about his

industry but that first year in California was a tough one.

“There are a lot of rules and regulations in this town and I spent

a lot of time screwing in light bulbs and doing handyman jobs,” he

said. “At the time the economy was really in the tank.”

Now his work comes from referrals, meaning that an honest job and

an active role in the community as a member of the Rotary Club and in

the chamber counts more in Laguna than a snappy slogan or flashy ad


“When people like you ... that is where you do well in this

business,” he said. “It’s very open ended and they have to trust


For the past three years business has remained steady for Morris

and even if the larger economy takes a greater dive, he thinks that

with a crew of five his business will remain on an even keel.

“We specialize in remodel, repair and renovation and we’ve never

had a problem,” he said. “As long as God has termites and mold, I’ll

always have work.”

Perfect Attendance

Nonprofit organizations, particularly those that specialize in the

arts, are the first to suffer in a weak economy that cannot support

lavish endowments. Although the Laguna Art Museum has had to be more

creative in its fund-raising efforts, as a whole it has not suffered


“Sept. 11 did not entirely affect attendance,” said Stuart Byer,

public relations director for the museum. “Many museums saw an

increase because many people looked to art as an antidote.”

Throughout the year the museum has continued to see strong

attendance. Its two largest events of the calendar year, Art For AIDS

and the Lincoln Plein Air Painting Invitational (co-hosted with

Laguna Plein Air Painters) drew record crowds.

“We had two very strong shows in the past and Surf Culture broke

attendance records when 800 people came though on opening day,” Byer


Back to the Basics

At Crazy Shirts on Forest Avenue, manager Robbie Prude and her

crew have to be on their toes for a stranger at any given moment.

After the events of Sept. 11 slammed tourism to a halt and the

Crazy Shirts Company was purchased by Waikiki Trader, the Laguna

store was like the little engine that could.

“Our target market are tourists,” said Robin Ahmann, area manager

of Southern California and Las Vegas. “Obviously it affected our

market but it was out of control.”

Together with Prude Ahmann looked at what they could control:

products, display and service. Backed by the Crazy Shirts designers

who create the in-demand hydro shorts that change pattern when wet,

or the specialty dyed product line of clothing that is dyed by

chocolate, beer, chile and money, the store has product covered. As

for display, Prude routinely moves products around the store so that

the hot-ticket items are up front along with the untried for

customers’ perusal.

But the primary focus, said Ahmann, has been service.

“We signed up for a mystery shopper with the chamber as part of a

four-week program that will also monitor our improvement,” she said.

The mystery shopper will look at how employees greet him or her,

if they know the products and sell up the store’s amenities such as

its complimentary gift wrapping that is designed to survive any

suitcase. However, Prude and her crew also strive to be good

neighbors and ambassadors.

“If a customer comes in needing a children’s shirt or bathing

suit, someone will tell them where they can find it in town,” she

said. “We also give meter change and try to keep up with local events

or give restaurant suggestions.”

Partly because of their attention to the fundamental rule in

retail -- the customer is always right -- Ahmann estimated that sales

are 5% more than their projected goals for June and July.

“We’re doing stronger than we planned for the summer season,” she

said. “You can only change what you can change, the rest we play by


* MARY A. CASTILLO is a news assistant for the Coastline Pilot.

She covers education, public safety and City Hall.