It was quite a hand that Mavil Aghadjanian was dealt this year, when her expected rise to leading the Montrose-Verdugo City Chamber of Commerce was not only expedited, but happened during the era of a pandemic.
When she joined the organization about a year ago to work membership services, Aghadjanian said internal plans were to position her as the eventual successor to Victoria Malone as executive director of the nonprofit. However, Malone in June accepted a surprise offer to join the Mavil Aghadjanian, which vaulted Aghadjanian up to the top early. She said she is hoping the organization’s longevity — it launched in 1923 — will help her navigate through the storm of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s been here far longer than any of us have,” Aghadjanian said. “It was scary at first accepting this role. We had talked about how eventually this would happen, that I would step into this position, but I didn’t think it would ever be in these circumstances.”
When the pandemic was declared in March, the resultant restrictions forced many of the chamber’s some-200 merchants to lock doors as part of the measures to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. Restaurants were forced to transition exclusively to delivery or takeout — some opted to simply close up shop instead. Although county and state officials began allowing nonessential retailers and service providers to open up in June, a spike in cases forced the restrictions to contract once again.
“It’s been overwhelming for them,” Aghadjanian said, noting that this week she has been trying to work out how Montrose’s hair stylists and salons could set up outdoors, as is permitted.
Exacerbating matters, two of the chamber’s big fundraising events — which tend to also put waves of customers in seats and in shops — had to be canceled thanks to the pandemic. The Craft Beer Festival in the spring was quickly shut down, and Oktoberfest had the plug pulled this week in spite of hopes to find a way to somehow make it work.
Aghadjanian recollected that she was initially meant to shadow this year’s Oktoberfest event, as part of her long-term prep work. While lamenting the decisions, Aghadjanian specifically recalled one Montrose restaurateur who invested in a pop-up style booth that likely would have worked especially well in the context of Oktoberfest or the beer festival.
“All of the effort and finances put in to make their businesses thrive,” she said, and then gestured as if to the coronavirus itself, “and then this.”
Having grown up in the Montrose neighborhood, Aghadjanian attended La Crescenta Elementary and Rosemont Middle schools before eventually graduating from Crescenta Valley High School in 2008. She earned her bachelor’s degree in communication from Cal State Northridge last year, which she aimed to parlay into her own social media management company. She hit the pause button on that when she ascended as executive director, but she does work in a separate social media management role for another firm.
Aghadjanian — maiden name Avila — and husband, Emil (also from Glendale), both decided to settle in their hometown to be with their families and to raise their own family. They have a 3-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter.
“I just have such good, vivid memories of walking around Montrose with my family and running into my peers here,” she said. “Now our kids will grow up and go to school here. We are invested in this town and we are all about Montrose.”
Asked about the chamber’s role during a time when business isn’t booming — and, really, can’t — Aghadjanian said the organization still has to find a way to be a network and a resource for the predominantly mom-and-pop merchants, who, like her, often have kids of their own to worry about. One tool came naturally to her: social media.
“I think that’s where a lot of our Montrose merchants are suffering,” she explained. “Some of them didn’t build up, say, an email list before all of this, so how can they get information on their business changes out?”
So, she said, she has been visiting her merchants and giving them tips on how to use Facebook or Instagram to promote their businesses, advertise specials and push out the important new information. The chamber itself runs its own Instagram page — @montrose_chamber — which highlights local merchants and their latest deals.
“I think having that connection with your clients is most important right now,” Aghadjanian said. “Everyone can slowly start growing their audience and clientele and go from there.”
Outside of that, the chamber plans to use avenues such as Facebook Live to host conversations and programs for interested merchants and their families. For example, on Aug. 27, the chamber has partnered with YMCA of the Foothills to bring in a clinical social worker, a yoga instructor and a nutritionist — all local — to produce a “Wellness During COVID-19” program.
A GoFundMe — charity.gofundme.com/o/en/campaign/montroseverdugo-city-chamber-of-commerce/montrose-verdugo-city-chamber-of-commerce — has been established to help carry the chamber’s mission forward for the moment, with a goal of generating $20,000 to help bridge the loss of the fundraising events.
Additionally, Aghadjanian praised Glendale’s government for setting up several “al fresco” dining areas in the Montrose Shopping Park area, where local restaurants can continue to have sit-down service outdoors, in accordance with state regulations. The chamber was among dozens of partners with the city in helping to identify economic recovery initiatives, an effort that produced this program. Though the city primarily sets up these sectioned-off areas along street parking, restaurants lucky to have a coveted private parking lot can apply to set up tables in them.
“I think if it weren’t for that, we would have a lot more unhappy merchants right now,” Aghadjanian said. “I think it saved a lot of them and, in a way, I think it saved the communities. I think everyone is loving it, really. It has taken up parking, but I don’t know that anyone has been too unhappy about that.”
Malone, who was with the chamber for four years, said she was confident with what Aghadjanian brought to the table when she recruited her to the organization.
“I knew that she had the time and the ability with her skill set and her disposition that she would be a good candidate,” Malone said. “We were very pleased with the work she was doing.”
At the time, Malone added that the chamber was going through a re-envisioning of how the organization provided resources and services to merchants and Aghadjanian dove right into that with her.
“That’s something we always talked about, making sure that membership is serviced in the best and most optimal way that the organization can during whatever economic situation in the world and the community at that time,” Malone said.
In the meantime, Aghadjanian said the chamber will roll with the punches as the pandemic months drag on and do what it can to identify creative solutions to keep Montrose’s character alive.
“I’ve thought a little bit about ‘What happens if more shops close down?’” she said. “Will there be more apartments? I don’t know that it would have that same feel. That small hometown feel in L.A. is almost unheard of, and that’s something we’d like to preserve.”