More than 100 people filled the Council Chambers at Mill Valley City Hall Wednesday evening for a panel discussion on the unlikeliest of subjects to draw a packed house: the How and the Why of serving your community.

The inaugural Engage Mill Valley: Where Do I Plug In? event was tightly constructed by the Mill Valley Chamber of Commerce and the City of Mill Valley to inform and inspire people to become more involved in some aspect of Mill Valley. But the critical factor in filling the room on a Wednesday evening that featured a Golden State Warriors playoff game was simple: gather a dynamite panel of local leaders with diverse experiences and plenty of wisdom and encouragement to share.

For those who missed it, the event is archived for streaming here and will be re-broadcast on Comcast channel 27 on May 15 at 5pm, May 17 at 2pm and May 19 at 5pm. And here’s a form that dozens of attendees filled out to express their interest in serving their community.

The “Leadership, Legacies, and Next-Generation Opportunities” panel included:

  • Dennis Fisco – Co-founder of Seagate Properties. Former Planning Commissioner, Councilmember and Mayor who was instrumental in the creation of the MV Community Center and of Friends of Fields, which has played a vital role in creating, renovating and maintaining sports fields across Mill Valley.
  • Linda Davis – CEO of the Center for Volunteer & Nonprofit Leadership and the Executive Director of the Mill Valley Chamber from 1996-2002.  
  • Ken Broad – Founding Partner at Jackson Square Partners and co-founder of Friends of the CFI-Sequoia Theatre, formed to purchase the historic cinema and preserve a home for the Mill Valley Film Festival in perpetuity
  • Garry Lion – Current Vice Mayor and the CEO of Internet strategy and website development firm has served on the boards of the Marin Economic Forum, Marin Clean Energy, Marin Disaster Council, SASM and numerous nonprofits.
  • Tammy Edmonson – President of the Throckmorton Theatre Board of Directors and co-founder of the Community Arts Coalition, both dedicated to uniting the community through the power of the arts.
  • Will Hutchinson – Co-founder/owner of Proof Lab, an ever-growing surf and skate shop that has grown into the multi-faceted community epicenter of Tam Junction.
  • Tyler Barbee – Tam High student body president and creator of PAASS (Project Awareness And Special Sports), which facilitates the participation of special needs teens in community-based sports programs.

“We live in a wonderful town. It didn’t happen by accident. It was built by men and women who have participated in this community,” former Mill Valley Mayor, current Marin Independent Journal columnist and Engage MV panel moderator Dick Spotswood said. “If you find yourself in this place, you’re a pretty lucky person. That results in a duty to share and help make it happen.”

Spotswood’s message set the tone: the landmark buildings, organizations and institutions in Mill Valley were built by people, and those in the audience with passion and skills can – and should – follow their lead.

As Fisco said: “Let each generation be the successor to a higher plain of life. Every time you help these organizations and the community, you’re helping bring it forward for our children and our children’s children.”

With a focus on learning where you fit in and how to get in, here’s a brief synopsis of each panelist’s insight:

Tyler Barbee

The founder of PAASS recalled a memory from second grade, when he was playing basketball with friends and saw his autistic older brother Connor in the distance bouncing a tennis ball alone, laughing to himself. “Other boys were playing near him and were throwing the ball too hard and had too much energy for him, so he left,” Barbee said. “That memory stuck with me,” and led to the creation of the Mill Valley Challenger leagues for kids with special needs. The group became PAASS in 2014.

Barbee’s major lesson in his service has been the deep support from the Mill Valley community.

“If you have a passion to do something, there are the resources in Mill Valley and Marin to help realize that passion,” he said. “And making an impact, you develop yourself so much.”

Will Hutchinson

Surfing and skating have been Hutchinson passions since he was a kid, and realized a dream in opening and building Proof Lab in Tam Valley. But after going through a green MBA program a few years ago, he added another S to that list: sustainability.

“I realized we had a great opportunity to turn this traditional retail business in Mill Valley and apply the principles of sustainability to the business,” he said. “Building community became part of our mission statement. It’s about taking more responsibility for our actions.”

Since then, Proof Lab has incubated nine other businesses has added a slew of ancillary elements, including an indoor skate park, surf camp, skateboarding school, wood shop, the Mill Valley Potter’s Studio, music lessons, a biodiesel station, the Little Art Studio and the CNL Native Plant Nursery, not to mention Equator Coffees at Proof Lab, whose arrival in 2013 made the space even more of a gathering spot. 

“Some of these are businesses that might not be able to exist by themselves because leases are expensive are don’t offer the flexibility they might need,” he said.

In addition to those components, Proof Lab has also spearheaded a Kickstarter-funded Marin City Skate Park, and has created the Proof Lab Outdoor Award, a grant given to a person under 25 doing environmental work.

“Just follow your passions,” Hutchinson said.

Tammy Edmonson

Growing up in Mill Valley in the 1960s “and that generation’s energy of making a difference,” Edmonson took a break from her career as a defense attorney when she had kids – and never looked back. “I got very involved in this tremendous network of talented committed activists here in Mill Valley,” starting with the reopening of the Strawberry Point Elementary School, followed by all sorts of school-related fundraising and ballot measure-passing campaigns.

Over time, she migrated back to her first love: the arts & culture community. “When I was growing up, just about everybody was an artist to some degree, from hobby painters to legitimate rock stars,” she said. “And all of these arts organizations in Mill Valley give us this really creative edge. Our ability to sustain that helps us avoid the boring homogeneity of a lot of suburban communities.”

The vehicle to doing just that is the Throckmorton and CAC, Edmonson says, and she pours herself into it. “That’s it – follow your passion,” she says. “Ask a lot of questions. The needs will present themselves. If you pour heart into it, you will be stimulated, appreciated and always in demand.”

Garry Lion

After he bought his first home in Mill Valley in 1974, the three-time City Councilman got involved in his homeowners association, quickly rising into a leadership position. One of his major areas of focus in that role was to limit development around and on what is now regarded as one of Mill Valley’s hallmarks: Horse Hill.

“Can you imagine almost 1,000 more houses in that area than there are today” Lion asked the crowd.

After one term on the Council, Lion took a break to dive into his business and his family. He ran again in 2007 and won, and did so again in 2011. In that role, Lion said he’s learned that a “wide range of challenging problems are out there awaiting an engaged mind.”

Ken Broad

Having moved here 12 years ago, Broad, a film buff with a keen eye for finance, got wind in 2008 that the Sequoia Theatre was for sale. “It was born into the crash of 1929 and went for sale in the crash 2008,” Broad quipped.

Broad quickly joined the team that sought to help the California Film Institute buy the theater and preserve its use, reflecting on his time in San Francisco, where a number of landmark Art Deco movie houses have closed over the years.

“They’re just not economic on a for-profit basis,” Broad said. “So you either say that we want to have a theater in our town and it needs to be structured as a nonprofit and people need to invest the time and money to make that happen, or it gets put to its highest and best use and it ends up as a Walgreens or a gym, which would be a tragedy.”

The key to making a difference, Broad said, is “what are you really good at and what are you passion about. When you find that intersection, you can add a lot of value and have a lot of fun. Go deeper on fewer things and really make an impact.”

Linda Davis

“I started volunteering before it was cool to volunteer,” said Davis, who oversees an agency that helps people connect to one of the 1,750 nonprofit organizations in Marin and many more. “I’ve always been drawn to the work that’s about community – issues and causes that are about equity and service.”

Davis passed that focus down to her children, whether they liked it or not, as Davis brought her kids along on meal deliveries and all sorts of adventures. In 2006, she took them to New Orleans to help demolish and rebuild badly damaged homes in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, a trip that had an infinite on her then-teenagers.

“Needless to say, I never had to force my kids to volunteer again,” Davis said.

The biggest obstacle toward community progress, Davis said, is a lack of political will and a sense of entitlement.

“It doesn’t matter where or what – just do something,” she said. “Volunteering will bring you more joy and satisfaction that you are giving – and giving your time will help you live longer and lead a life of meaning. Instead of focusing on the problems in your own life – help somebody with theirs.”

Dennis Fisco

The former mayor, who has left an imprint all over town from the Community Center and sports fields to the Sweetwater Music Hall, started his segment with a mantra of sorts: “Work, wisdom and wealth.”

“If you are just able to contribute one of those to a cause you believe in, you’ll acquire the others one way or the other,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to get involved if you don’t have all three.”

Fisco moved to Mill Valley 31 years ago and got recruited at a Chamber event to seek a seat on the Planning Commission by former Mayor Betsey Cutler. He didn’t succeed at first but later was appointed to a position that saw him spend the next 17 years in the Council Chambers between the Commission and City Council meetings.

“I didn’t quit because I got turned down,” he said.

Fisco said his work with Friends of Fields, which raised $6 million to renovate sports fields all over town, succeeded because of determination, support from the City and the ability to cooperate with other entities like the Mill Valley Library to be sure they weren’t reaching out to the community for support at the same time.

“And if you’re going to join these groups, don’t have an ego,” he said. “And sometimes failure is a good thing.”


Asked by Chamber board member and event co-organizer Terry Nelson how they persevered through obstacles over what was often a very long period of time it took to reach their goals, the panelists had some choice replies:

“It gets back to the passion you have and the vision – you’ve just going to keep driving toward it,” Broad said.

“It pays to just be stubborn and keep going at it,” Lion added.

“Establish priorities and build consensus,” Edmonson said. “That can be hard and time consuming but it almost always leads to a better end product.”

“And don’t try to do it alone,” Hutchinson said. “Find at least one other person to help champion your cause.”

“We built the Community Center on a former dump on land that the City didn’t own and we didn’t have the money,” Fisco said, inciting laughter. “Remember that there’s a ton of expertise in this community. Find it, reach out and say you have one thing to ask them about – and then you’ve got your hook in them and you can keep asking.”

Longtime local volunteer and business owner Ken Brooks, who is set to become the president of the Rotary Club of Mill Valley in July, said the event had bolstered him for the coming transition.

 “As (July 1) gets closer, I was having some trepidation, misgivings and second thoughts,” Brooks said. “But as an old horse and community volunteer, I have been emboldened by this event tonight to take over my new role with gusto and the belief that it will be fun.”

Engage Mill Valley was Presented by the Mill Valley Chamber of Commerce and the City of Mill Valley with support from Bank of Marin, Mill Valley Market and Pacific Gas & Electric.

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