Featured Story:Flourishing Without Boundaries

By Scott Savage
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Flourishing Without Boundaries

Larry Ortega has lived and worked in Phoenix for 30 years, and believes the city's best days lie ahead.

Art. Real Estate. Food. Community Service. Church Networking.

While these five areas may seem completely disconnected and random on the surface, they connect in the daily work of Larry Ortega. Whether negotiating with a future tenant for a space he is showing or producing an art piece with wood and resin, Larry brings together disparate parts in an incredibly unique way.

Having moved here in 1980, he recalls the Phoenix he encountered as a small, “cozy” town with boundaries. “Nothing like the spread out, sprawling monstrosity we have today,” he says. What began as a career in art dovetailed into over 30 years in the world of retail real estate.

The real estate market has drastically evolved in those three decades. As Phoenix evolved from a small town to a sprawling metropolis, Larry noticed the emergence of a more sophisticated city with an urban core and eventually a light rail. Many have stopped thinking like a “small town” and now approach issues like a “big city.”

When prompted to look back over 34 years in Phoenix, Larry becomes reflective. “There is just something to be said for longevity,” he says. “I have gone through all the recessions. I have made it through each real estate crash.” And in the process, he says, he has become connected to the wider community, including relationships with those in business, government, and faith communities. “When you have roots,” he says, “the relationships you garner are amazing.”

It is those relationships that invigorate Larry’s eclectic work—and the same relationships focus his life’s calling.

When you have roots, the relationships you garner are amazing.

How does someone with 30 years of experience in retail real estate brokering, who also owns and operates an art gallery, bring together the randomness of the average day?

“It starts with calling,” he says. “My calling is locating, identifying, and integrating meaningful relationships. Everything begins with and comes out of that.”

“Real estate is the way I make money. It is art, but in a very different medium. I create pieces of artwork with wood, resin, steel and light. And I own and operate a gallery where I get to meet people and meaningful relationships can come about. Everything I am involved with leads to meaningful relationships.”

Like many others in downtown Phoenix, Larry’s work to build a flourishing city revealed places where breakdown is happening. Because his personal calling leads him to connect people to one another every day, he discovers siloed, disconnected communities quite easily. He finds people who do not know what others are doing. Again and again, he discovers a lack of awareness of gifted and talented agencies that are doing great work. That lack of exposure limits their effectiveness and impact. So Larry is passionate about the need to raise awareness and network these groups together.

What unites disconnected people and communities in this way? Larry believes that disparate communities come together around a shared project, goal, or mission. Several years ago, he was part of the group of people that helped to connect Paradise Valley Presbyterian Church with Southminster Presbyterian Church to meet a real tangible need. Even though both churches are Presbyterian, they were unaware of one another and of the way the resources of one could be deployed to meet the needs of the other.

South Mountain needed to dig a ditch to help build a community garden. While members of the Paradise Valley congregation wanted to serve, their age made them ill-suited for manual labor. Larry’s network produced a creative solution. His old friend Skip Ast, the president of Shasta Pools, was excited to donate equipment and an operator to dig the ditch. A couple of hours later, water was flowing to the new garden, and the relationships established through the connection helped to build a more flourishing community for all involved.

The project at South Mountain Presbyterian was one of many that came out of the Season of Service in 2009, which was organized in conjunction with the Luis Palau Association and gave rise to what is now CityServe AZ.

Larry was integrally involved in Season of Service in its earliest days. After witnessing how Season of Service events took shape in Tampa, Florida and Portland, Oregon, he came back to Phoenix invigorated. “I was blown away when I saw how the faith community, the business community, and a city government came together to solve problems,” he says. “City budget issues were solved by churches opening their doors to meet a real need. After-school programs in jeopardy of ending thrived with an influx of donations and volunteers.”

I was blown away when I saw how the faith community, the business community, and a city government came together to solve problems.

As the recession rocked Phoenix, Larry observed significant needs in the city, so he decided to get personally invested in Season of Service. “I was throwing it all my credit cards—renting ballrooms and paying for catering to build a network of pastors, churches, and community leaders who were committed to doing what it took to make this vision reality,” he says. “But as I moved forward, I encountered fear.”

Larry found churches that were protective of their turf and membership. He found a reluctance to “play well” with others. He credits Malissa Geer, who was then the assistant to Debra Friedman, the late provost at ASU Downtown, with helping to get people together. “She was my first teammate. I could not have done that without her,” he says.

These days, Larry is working hard to revitalize the Arizona Center in downtown Phoenix. After selling the iconic Mercado to ASU in 1999 for its downtown campus, the Arizona Center management approached him about helping them reinvigorate their facility. Right away, he saw a lot of potential for turning the center into a thriving hub for music, food, fashion, and art.

“Arizona Center needed to connect to the community,” he says. “We are starting to see some things flourish.”

I do not believe there are any boundaries to Phoenix flourishing. A lot of people are pulling for that to happen.

He also has skin in the game, having opened Obliq, an art gallery in the center. “With my art, I start with a dead thing and I add life to it,” he says. “The same thing was true for Arizona Center. There was a huge need when I started. We began by doing everything we could to connect it to the community.”

As Larry considers the next phase of his career, he continues to dream. “I want to see Phoenix flourish,” he says. “I want to see it truly compare to cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, and New York. And there is a major cultural part of that which includes art, music, poetry, and dance.”

“I do not believe there are any boundaries to Phoenix flourishing,” he says. “A lot of people are pulling for that to happen.”

Photo Credit: David Warner

Scott Savage

Scott is a pastor and a writer. He lives in Central Phoenix with his wife and three small children.

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