Peña, who provided Ventura Port District with more than 20 years of service, will serve out his term as general manager on April 30, and will accept short-term employment to wrap up ends until July.
VENTURA—Longtime general manger of Ventura’s Port District, Oscar Peña is retiring from his position this year. Peña was at the helm of Ventura Harbor for more than 20 years.
Ventura City Council member Jim Friedman, who served as harbor commissioner until last year, once said, “Everyone knows Oscar,” attesting to the respect and knowledge Peña has gained over the years. Peña’s shoes will be hard to fill, but Brian Pendleton, who is a leader in the aquaculture industry, will succeed the retiring veteran as the port district’s general manager if he is confirmed.
The Log had a conversation with Peña to discuss his victories, challenges and his plans for retirement.
Peña’s Retirement Plan & Personal Tragedy
Some sources appeared to be contradictory as to whether Peña was retiring or continuing to work for Port of Ventura in another capacity down the line, but with a chuckle Peña clears up those rumors.
“No, I’ll tell you what the deal was,” said Peña.
“Our family lost our house in the Thomas Fire. I’ve been prepared to retire at the end of April, which is when my [tenure] expires … I want to be helpful, but I don’t want to be in the way.”
As a kind of loophole to finish transitioning and training Brian Pendleton, who, if all goes according to plan, is positioned as the next general manager, Peña will take a vacant position as business manager at the port district for training purposes sometime in July. His contract as general manager expires on April 30.
“What we’ve talked about in the CalPERS doesn’t allow me to become a consultant directly after my retirement,” said Peña. “There’s a regulation that says I have to wait six months. And so to work around that, I’m going to take a vacant position that’s the Business Operations Manager position and continue to be an employee of the Port District to assist with the transition plan; I just won’t be the general manager.
“This temporary employment is to help in the transition phase and after that I’ll be able to enjoy my retirement,” Peña continued. “I’m hoping that by the end of July I’ll be on my way. I love the harbor and I love the places I work, so I think for a short period I’ll just be here to help the commissioners and the new general manager.”
Love for California & Rise to Ventura Port District’s General Manager
Peña, a native of San Antonio, Texas, makes no qualms about his love for California.
“You know what, I have my family a brother and two sisters who still live in San Antonio and I go there maybe once a year to visit, but, you know, I can’t say I miss it. I’m glad I live in California,” said Peña.
Peña studied political science while at college in San Diego, where he ended up finding a little more than an education. While in San Diego he met his wife and a romance ensued. They lived in Texas afterwards for a few years until they could find their way back.
“Even though it was just a college romance, we ended up getting married after we graduated. I actually went back to San Antonio and graduated from Trinity University,” said Peña. “I will tell you just going to college in San Diego for the first two years, it really drew me to the State of California.”
Though Peña and his wife returned to Texas, it was always their intention to return.
“Living by the ocean has always been one of our dreams and we found a seaside town that fits perfectly for us.”
Quite knowledgeable in the commercial real estate industry (with around 40 years of experience in that market), Peña earned his position after beginning as a consultant. One of Peña’s major accomplishments was taking over Ventura Harbor Village, which 20 years ago was in a pretty sorry state.
“I got real lucky, because at one point the Port was in bankruptcy at about the time I was hired as a consultant for managing Ventura Harbor Village,” Peña said. “I was able to turn Ventura Harbor Village around. It had a lot of vacancies when I came in – not that we ever got to 100 percent occupancy there, but the tenant relations improved, we had very effective marketing and promotions that helped attract visitors to Harbor Village, which was really needed at the time.”
To date, Ventura Port District holds 96 percent of occupancy of tenants at Ventura Harbor Village and even after a hit from the recession, Peña seems glad he snatched up the opportunity.
“I think after the commissioners saw that I was able to turn Harbor Village around successfully, there was an opportunity to consider me as the general manager. At that time I owned my own management company and they approached me and asked if I would consider becoming general manager and I accepted,” Peña continued.
Growth in Ventura
Ventura, which is basically the gateway to some of California’s most scenic places such as Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Big Sur, has not always seen its share of love. Peña, however, pinpoints a few areas Ventura is a destination worth the stop for tourists.
As is the case for many smaller towns – for instance, Dana Point not wanting to be Newport Beach after its revitalization – Peña says local Venturans do not want to be the new Marina del Rey. Coastal Californians oftentimes have strong opinions about their identities in comparison to other neighboring towns.
After working with the commercial fishing industry through his position, Peña is hopeful for the aquaculture industry to take off in Ventura and keep their dredging needs funded.
“I think what he’s [Brian Pendleton] been involved in is the aquaculture project in federal waters. I think that will help us continue to get our harbor dredged and that’s pretty key to us. We have the right guy in place to continue a very successful harbor,” Peña told The Log.
He commended the port district for promoting local fisheries and fishermen.
“This harbor is probably the most successful [for squid fishermen] because we have large slips for pursing vessels and we’re going to be modifying some of our dock systems at harbor Village Marina starting in June it’s a $4.6 million project,” Peña said.
Some of the challenges in growing the harbor’s wealth and resources stems from its unique setting.
“Ventura is a middle market for retail,” said Peña. “Being a smaller community we don’t have the kind of market for national or regional food coming to our harbor. Within a one-mile radius there’s not a lot of housing development and we’re surrounded by agriculture. You can have people living and working within the harbor, which may provide more restaurants.”
With a fairly dry restaurant scene going into his position, however, Peña has seen Ventura attract more eateries and is hopeful that will continue.
Heading Into The Future: What’s Next for Ventura?
A common strand in The Log, some readers may have noticed, is the never-ending battle to complete waterfront developments, including in Ventura’s Port District. To the developer, however, Peña adds a key point as to why that’s the case: the California Coastal Commission. “Well, I think the California Coastal Act makes a big difference,” says Peña. “When you’re trying to develop in a coastal community like Ventura and you have to contend with going to the Coastal Commission and asking their permission for what kind of development they will allow you to have.”
Though the Coastal Commission protects California from becoming the next Jersey Shore, it takes time to ask their permission. Peña explained that’s why inland buildings may be popping up like crazy whereas waterfront developments can take the better half of a decade or more.
“If you’re not on the water somewhere, you may not have to deal with the Coastal Commission,” Peña told The Log. “It’s just one more process, but I think that’s the main reason for the timeliness of a development project.”
When comparing Ventura to surrounding areas, Peña agrees Ventura has a lot going for it and references a catchphrase used some years ago stating “Come to the cooler Ventura,” citing the beautiful weather typical of many California coastal communities.
“Sure, you have the same type of amenities they have in Santa Barbara, in terms of the kinds of beaches we have, especially in the harbor,” said Peña. “But I think the hotels are just as nice. We may not have as many high-end hotels as they have, but for the most part in terms of the people who are looking for a waterfront community, I think it’s great.
“We do a really good job attracting people from San Fernando Valley and Antelope Valley. When the weather gets hot all the way around us, people come to the harbor,” Peña continued.
While some might reckon Ventura is a prime investment location, H. Parker Development decided against taking on the hotel development project in 2018.
“They had the option to enter into a ground lease for a boutique hotel at the end of Spinnaker Drive and a hostel,” Peña said. “These ground leases allow someone to explore what opportunity they have and what the timeline will be. And I think especially developing in a harbor or beach area like this adjacent to a national park is challenging. From an investment perspective they were probably looking for low hanging fruit that might be a better investment for them. They decided trying to develop something in a beach area might take too long.”
Peña does not seem to have any hard feelings, though, as Holiday Inn Express will be opening more rooms in June and the ground lease provided an opportunity for the harbor.
Of all the projects on tap, Peña’s especially excited for the fisherman storage facility, which is a one-of-a-kind development in the area
Peña’s Next Steps in the Community
Upon entering into retirement, Peña also has a list of interests that stretch into volunteering for various nonprofits and staying involved in the community, spending more time with family and traveling.
“I have three children, so for the most part [Ventura] has been their home for the majority of their life so I have a daughter who is married and lives in Ventura, another daughter who is going to Ventura College, and then I have a special needs daughter and so she’ll be with my wife and I for a long time,” Peña said.
Sadly, Peña is afraid his college-aged daughter may not be able to stay in the area due to climbing housing prices and hope he can do address the housing crisis.
“I’m ready to shift gears,” says Peña. “I want to remain active in the community. I want to benefit other groups that I believe I be helpful to by advocating for them. I think that’s really the next step for me. I’ve been successful as a general manager for the Port District and I think there are some skill sets that could benefit nonprofit organizations.”
Peña adds of his nonprofit interests: “Specifically with my daughter The Arc of Ventura. They are funded through the state through tri-county regional centers. I would like to help that organization, because my daughter is part of that system and I think that’s important. There are other groups that I might volunteer for. When our house burned down, I’ll tell you, the Red Cross was right there for us and other members of the community.”
As far as boating goes, Peña learned long ago it’s more fun to have boater friends than to accrue the costs himself.
“I have actually owned a couple of sailboats and they require quite a bit of maintenance, which I didn’t take advantage of, so we sold them. I always said it’s much nicer to have friends who own a boat than to own your own. I have friends in the harbor who invite us out on their boats and I think that is something we have enjoyed, not only for their company, but it’s also a lot easier.”
Peña, on the other hand, is ready to retire. After his home was destroyed in the Thomas Fires, that was a hit that pushed him to make the decision.
“It’s hard to rebuild a house when you have a full-time job,” said Peña. Fortunately, he and his family members survived the fire, but it has been a long time planning with an architect to rebuild it.
Peña has one simple request for the community and his successors.
“It’s not a difficult ask,” Peña says. “I think they have to continue enjoying the harbor and enjoying the assets that really make this community what it is. It’s creating memories in the harbor that will last a lifetime.”