Cover Stories

What’s Next for the NEXTIES?

The local awards show gets an extreme makeover on May 30, as Event Santa Cruz’s Matthew Swinnerton takes it to the next level

When Matthew Swinnerton took over the NEXTies this year, he didn’t want to do a typical awards show. When he started Event Santa Cruz eight months ago, he didn’t want to do a typical speaker series. He doesn’t even want a typical office.

He doesn’t want any office.

“From Verve to Kaiser Stadium, I feel like that’s my office. I’m at Cruzio, I’m at NextSpace, I’m a member of both. But I feel like most of my conversations are just on Pacific,” says Swinnerton. “I love meeting different people, and finding out what’s interesting to them. And I get to do that all day long. If I’m talking to you, and you’re excited about your job and what you’re doing, that rubs off on me.”

It’s hard to imagine a better philosophy for an organizer of the NEXTies, which is no doubt why the Santa Cruz NEXT group asked him to take over the fifth annual edition of their awards, which will once again honor innovators who “create, build and inspire” in the Santa Cruz community. In his atypical way, Swinnerton immediately set about making the awards show—which will be presented May 30 at the Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz—something to talk about.

cov 1swinner“We’re changing up the whole format,” he says. “We’re keeping some of the traditions. But the presentation is going to be different. Before, there’d be like 250 who would come, and there’d be 100 seats. So 100 people could watch, and everybody would be mingling around. I wanted to put on a show. I love putting on a show.”

This particular show could draw as many as 500 people, the biggest showcase ever both for the NEXTies, and for Swinnerton. But reinvention is quickly becoming his stock in trade. In just a few months, he’s evolved his Event Santa Cruz showcases into themed nights: food innovators one night, extreme-sports entrepreneurs another, local musicians the next. From the very first event, which included seven speakers, people expressed sheer disbelief that he could keep a monthly series featuring so many local innovators going for very long.

“Everybody said that!” he says, shaking his head. “‘Why are you doing once a month, that’s too much!’ I have, like, a year-plus of people past this that I can use. I have no problem doing that.”

He’s taken a different approach to the NEXTies, too. The show will start out with a video of the balloon the NEXTies crew launched 50 miles into space, loaded up with GoPro cameras, GPS, a redwood sapling, and—secretly hidden away—his son’s C-3PO and R2D2 action fig- ures. He researched the project for two months, getting clearance from the FAA and tracking weather pat- terns, before launching the rig and then retrieving it off the coast.

“The idea is you have this redwood tree, and it’s a sapling, it’s only a couple of months old,” he says. “It already went up to space, then comes back down and puts its roots in Santa Cruz. It correlates with the NEXTies winners— they’re young, but they’re doing amazing things, and they’re doing them here in Santa Cruz. We’re going to plant the tree somewhere in Santa Cruz.”

Then there will musical performances, another NEXTies first. Local hero James Durbin will play, and singer-songwriter Ian Bell, followed by the awards.

“Everybody gets five minutes,” says Swinnerton of the winners’ speeches. “I don’t want just an acceptance speech, like ‘I want to thank the Academy’ or whatever, I want them to talk about why they do what they do. I want it to be kind of inspirational. I’m making it kind of young and fast-paced, the presentation of the Nexties. But I want to slow it down for them, to hear about them.”

The NEXTies awards show will be held Friday, May 30, at 7 p.m. at the Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz. Tickets are $40 online, $50 at the door, available at

The Honorees

cov 2consuelConsuelo Alba

What kind of movie gets into the Watsonville Film Festival? To co-founder Consuelo Alba, the answer lies beyond film school flash and production polish.

“We present world-class films, but we also present films made by people who are just starting, but who have something to say,” says Alba.

“Yes, it’s important to work on the technique and all that, but even more important is to have a message that resonates with people.”

Alba can relate to the substance- over-style approach, because she and her husband John Spyer taught themselves how to use everything from cameras to editing software on their way to reinventing themselves as full-time filmmakers. They had both previously been journalists, working at Watsonville’s bilingual El Andar newspaper before it folded. In 2010, on a trip to Chiapas, they met a healer named Sergio Castro, and built their first documentary short, El Andalon, around his story.

“Technically, I can tell you we were not about all these amazing perfect cuts, and the lighting. We were more like guerrilla filmmakers. But it has a lot of heart,” says Alba.

A lot of other people seemed to think so, too, as the film was accepted into 30 festivals. Ironically, however, there was no place to play it in Watsonville.

So they created one.

That was the humble beginning of the festival, but by the next year, it had already grown by leaps and bounds, celebrating the 25th anni- versary of La Bamba and presenting films at the Mello Center and Cabrillo College.

“We’re crazy,” Alba admits. The festival finished its third year in March, with 15 films, along with events featuring filmmakers from the Bay Area, Los Angeles, the Southwest and Mexico City.

“We don’t just show films. We create programs,” says Alba. “It’s very important to us to show films that are relevant to the community—they don’t have to be only Latino films—with issues that are important to Watsonville.”

cov 3peppingGreg Pepping

Last October, attendees at an otherwise run of the mill Santa Cruz city council meeting were surprised to find in their midst more than a dozen locals sporting life preservation vests.

“The response was, ‘Why are you wearing a life vest at city council?’ Well, ’cause we’re talking about paddling!” recalls Greg Pepping, execu- tive director of the Coastal Watershed Council. At that council meeting, he gave a presentation asking the city council to rethink an ordinance that prevents recreation on the river. He was successful, and in the last year, Pepping has spearheaded a local effort to revitalize the San Lorenzo River through hosting numerous kayaking and stand-up paddleboard events.

Talking with Pepping, it’s clear that water is the thing he loves most. He lives on a houseboat, and when asked is quick to expound upon the scientific, spiritual, and practical qualities of water, he says, “I geek out on the 104-degree bond angle of water—it’s a special substance,” he says.

And to Pepping, the San Lorenzo River, an oft-put-down community landmark, is no exception. Through community meetings and events all year, Pepping has inspired the public to share their ideas for how to better honor and enjoy the river that flows through our downtown. When discussing the ideas the community has brought forth this year, Pepping brims with excitement.

“People want to see river cafes, and people want to have activities. People want to paddle,” he says. “And then all types of events that you can imagine down in the river walk, like music, and arts, and birding tours, and yoga in the park, and movies in the park and food carts—and we’re doing a cross-fit boot camp this summer—and just everything you can imagine that’s fun.”

Pepping says he sees a shift in local residents’ attitude toward their environment.

“I think the Santa Cruz community is changing, and people want more. We have great nature right in our back yard,” Pepping says, of the ocean, the redwoods and the mountains. “But I want that to be our front yard, too.” | Georgia Perry

cov 4lindseyLindsey Chester

As the founder and artistic director of children’s theater company All About Theatre, Lindsey Chester has the benefit of helping countless Santa Cruz kids come into their own. “What we’re about is the growth of the children,” says Chester, who herself performed on stage for the first time at age six, in her native England. “[Parents] see the changes on the stage but also in life. Their schoolteachers start to comment differently. Like, ‘Wow, your child is suddenly reading a report differently,’ or, ‘they’re really confident.’”

After a couple hard years—Chester’s young daughter had whooping cough, and the company had to take a backseat—Chester is back in full-fledged theater mode, and the company she founded 11 years ago is enjoying a growth spurt of its own, transitioning to become an official nonprofit.

For Chester, the company’s nonprofit status will mean more opportunities for All About Theatre and the kids it serves. “Dollar signs have never come in for me. When you’ve got a calling, and you understand that it’s not about you, it’s about them— the children, the whole community— even if you’re exhausted, you just find the strength to dig deeper because you realize the outcome.

“Every single moment where a kids eyes suddenly sparkle with life and they’re like, ‘I can do that!,’ when you see a child achieve something they never dreamed that they could, it’s like you want to sob and cry with joy, because you just helped that child on a huge pathway of stepping stones,” she says.

“We’ve had so many of our kids go off to professional performing arts colleges. James Durbin worked with us. He’s actually singing at the NEXTies ceremony,” she says, clapping her hands and grinning with excitement at the prospect. “I get to give him a hug again!” | Georgia Perry

cov 5tylerTyler Fox

“It’s an awesome outlet, for people to get in the ocean and surf. If they’re having difficulty in their lives, surfing can provide a little bit of relief,” says Tyler Fox, founder and CEO of Santa Cruz Waves. The key to Fox’s success with the site is clearly his own connection to not just the surfing community, but also the actual surfing experience.

The water and the exercise relax Fox, who surfs every other day and was finalist at the Mavericks Invitational this past year. A little paddling provides an energy release for the busy entrepreneur.

“There’s a lot of different ways to get that release. There’s surfing. There’s going to the gym and going swimming,” Fox says. “Just the other morning, my roommates and I took our canoe at sunrise and saw dolphins and whales. As long as I’m out doing something really active at least every other day, I feel pretty good.”

When Fox made it to the second round of the big-wave Mavericks showdown last year, he had one goal for 2014: make it to the finals. So, it’s little surprise the shredder calls his placing fourth at this past year’s contest “a dream come true.”

Fox is no stranger to monster waves, especially at Mavericks, which he’ll wake up at 5 a.m. to tackle when the swell looms large. He even served as a stunt double for Chasing Mavericks, the film based on the life of Santa Cruz soul surfing legend Jay Moriarty. The film crew told Fox on the dock for the boat that his job would to lose control in a huge wipeout—not something people normally do on purpose. He called the experience “a blast,” although the footage never made the final cut. In a town with so many great surfers, the people who inspire Fox most are locals from his generation who are putting their heads down and pursuing their passions full-steam ahead. Fox’s housemate Kyle Thierman, who created Surfing for Change four years ago, raises awareness about the roles corporations like Bank of America and Mansanto play in damaging pristine coastlines. “Pretty much anyone who’s doing new, creative and exciting things inspire me,” Fox says. | Jacob Pierce

cov 6kendraKendra Baker & Zach Davis

Not only has the NEXTies added a fifth winner this year, it’s technically added a sixth, by making Kendra Baker and Zach Davis the first co-awardees. In fact, as Baker and Davis have piled on projects from the Penny Ice Creamery to the Picnic Basket to the new Assembly-with satellite outlets in-between-it’s been rare to see one mentioned without the other.

How much longer can they take all this togetherness? Could being forced to share this award be the last straw?

Sitting with Baker at the Penny’s alpha base on Cedar Street, Davis shows no sign of cracking.

“Personally, I don’t feel like it’d be appropriate any other way,” he says. “I mean, when we started out, our roles were much more clearly defined. And now we’re on this…it’s like two planets that are on this slow collision.”

“Soon we will become one,” says Baker.

Telepathic communication ap- parently goes on between the two of them at this point, and Davis admits, “Kendra doesn’t like my metaphors.”

“No,” she says with a wry smile.

“Binary star system?” he suggests.

“Sure,” she says.

“I don’t know why I’m so astrological today.”

She shrugs. “It’s the full moon.”

cov 7zachThis is not your typical business-partner banter. There’s an infectious energy between the two of them that makes it easy to see why they can share an award. They certainly seem to share a brain.

“What Zach says is true,” says Baker, although it’s not clear whether she’s referring to what he said out loud, or with his mind powers. “I’ve always been so grateful to have him as a partner. I think we complement each other really well. We motivate each other, and we come up with great ideas together. It’s really fun to collaborate with him.”

It’s been four years since they opened the Penny’s Cedar Street lo- cation, and their newest venture, the full-service, farm-to-table-focused restaurant Assembly has been a huge hit since opening on Pacific Avenue in March. While their rise has often been compared to the Santa Cruz culinary equivalent of empire building, Baker says aggressive growth was never a priority.

“I think that every new opportunity has kind of presented itself. I don’t really feel like we’ve so much gone out and sought new ventures,” she says.

Neither, of course, have they sat back and rode the success of their projects. (“We’re not really the sitting back types,” says Davis, in full understatement mode.) Instead, they’re very much about saying “yes.” So when Santa Cruz Redevelopment Manager Julie Hendee suggested they move into a downtown kiosk that was opening up, they said yes. When the Beach Street Inn’s Chris Ferrante suggested they bring ice cream to the area around the wharf, they said yes (going a step further, even, with the Picnic Basket). When the Verve Coffee folks said they’d love to have them as a neighbor on 41st Avenue, they said yes.

The popularity of those ventures created quite a bit of momentum for Baker and Davis going into Assembly.

“Anybody in this business will tell you it’s not an easy business, especially to build awareness initially,” says David. “Assembly definitely benefited from the interest and good will of a lot of people toward what we’d been doing prior to that.”

“I think everybody had their own interpretation of what Assembly was,” says Baker. “And I think the first month or so was kind of teaching people what Assembly was.”

For someone who’s done so much in Santa Cruz in such a short period of time, Davis has an unusual perspective on what it means to win a NEXTie.

“Having gone to the Event Santa Cruz event where they had all the former NEXTie winners speak, and listening to what they’ve done since winning a NEXTie, I felt like it was not so much an award as, like, a mandate to do some amazing things,” he says. “Really, just to a person, hearing everybody talk about what they’ve done since then, I was blown away. And in large part, I realized that I didn’t know them for the things they had won a NEXTie for, I knew them for what came after. So I feel like the onus is kind of on us now.” | Steve Palopoli

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