Chapman alumnus plans to found cultural hub in Old Towne

By Daniel Langhorne

Kevin Staniec was driving home after picking up takeout food, when he got the urge to check -- one more time -- if the Sunkist Orange County Fruit Exchange Building was open.

Through years of scoping out the enchanting historic building at 195 S. Glassell Street, Staniec had always found the front door locked behind a black metal gate. To his amazement, he found the gate open, and eagerly ran and knocked on the door.

The door opened just wide enough for Staniec to see a man’s face. “Are you Tom Porter?” he asked. Staniec had finally come face-to-face with the owner of the building that was once the headquarters for the marketing of Orange County’s citrus crop.  

His spur-of-the-moment detour put him right where he wanted to be – at the threshold of a relationship that could turn concept into concrete.

History and arts converge

If Staniec has his way, the Fruit Exchange Building will be the home of the 1888 Center, named for the year the City of Orange was incorporated, and host creative writing workshops, author lectures and art gallery shows.

During a recent interview at Provisions, Staniec grinned as he recalled exiting the 22 freeway at Glassell Street, and the excitement that swelled as he drove past the historic Orange Plaza.

“I didn’t want to leave after driving through,” Staniec said.

The 36-year-old Staniec and his wife Janet Kim have since adopted Orange as their new hometown, and are expecting their first child early this month. Staniec’s enthusiasm for the arts and the history of Orange is infectious. He aims to build on the city’s history of storytelling, which is recorded as far back as 1887, when the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union produced “The Plaza: A Local Drama in Five Acts” to raise money for the purchase of the town’s original fountain.

The 1888 Center currently publishes and sells novellas, which are defined as narrative works of between 17,500 and 40,000 words, through its publishing arm, Black Hills Press. They can be bought at www.1888.center for $12 each.

Stories to tell

Staniec strongly believes that writers shouldn’t work in a vacuum, and that the best work comes out of roundtable discussions with other creative minds.  He sees the building as a future setting for such collaboration. The strategic plan for the center is for its operating costs to be offset by book sales, class fees and ticket sales for events.

Megan Penn, executive director for Orange Home Grown Farmers & Artisans Market, recently partnered with Staniec to host a panel of local historians to talk about the Villa Park Orchards Packing House and the citrus industry.

“He not only has ideas, but he can implement them, which is hard to find,” Penn said.

Penn said she predicts there will be future partnerships between Orange Home Grown and the 1888 Center because both share a common goal of having people meet in a public space. Even though so many people primarily communicate with friends and family through the Internet, Staniec believes there is still a craving in society to interact with people on a face-to-face basis, and the 1888 Center can fill that need.

“I see it as a place where people can come and share stories, talk about their week, learn something new and, of course, it’s that off-line social place,” Staniec said.

Backed by experience Staniec brings experience to the 1888 Center from working at the Autry Museum of the American West, the Muckenthaler Cultural Center in Fullerton, and the Palm Court Arts Complex at the Orange County Great Park. Fred Ouweleen, president of the Muckenthaler’s board of directors, first met Staniec when he applied for a marketing position with Fullerton’s cultural center. 

After joining the staff, Staniec revamped the organization’s marketing strategy. The board was so impressed with his skills and passion for the arts, that he was invited to serve as a board member. During his time on the board, Staniec worked to repair a relationship  between  the  nonprofit and the city that, Ouweleen says, “wasn’t as healthy or collaborative as it could have been. He’s really interested in developing his leadership skills, and we would have conversations about that, which he would initiate.”

As an author himself, Staniec recognizes the uphill battle many writers face while trying to break into the New York-centric publishing world. To work around this seemingly insurmountable obstacle, in 2002 he cofounded ISM, a nonprofit that published a culture magazine and produced art exhibitions and community programs. 

Chapman University allowed Staniec and his partners to run ISM out of its publications office after working hours. 

“I feel like everyone has a story to tell, and I couldn’t care less if they can spell ‘love’,” he said. “I just care if they can feel love.”

Courtesy of Sargeant Creative

Kevin Staniec is president and executive director of the 1888 Center.

January 2016