SAN PEDRO — Chuck Milner can't pinpoint precisely when the Skytower at Ports o' Call Village last worked. At least three years have passed, he says, since the tower's elevator carried patrons 365 feet into the air for a panoramic view of the harbor.
Nevertheless, a plan by the village's operator, Specialty Restaurants Corp., to sell the tower to a Michigan amusement park doesn't please Milner, who has operated a gift shop at the waterfront tourist attraction for five years.
"The Skytower is a landmark and we would prefer that it stay," said Milner, who serves as vice president for the village's 84-member merchant's association. "The majority of the merchants here want the Skytower left up and operational."
The decision by Specialty, which operates the village under a long-term lease with the Los Angeles Harbor Department, to dismantle the tower has rekindled a battle that Milner and other small village merchants have waged against their Long Beach-based landlord. For years, the merchants maintain, they have been plagued by problems such as leaky roofs, termites, rotting wooden walkways, poor outdoor lighting and landscaping.
The same merchants, who believe the Skytower or another attraction is needed to lure tourists to the center, also complain that the company gives preferential treatment to larger tenants in its leasing practices. And, they say, the harbor department has largely ignored their concerns. Terry Williams, the merchant association president, said the port's staff did not even bother to set up a meeting with him last summer after the staff began investigating tenant gripes.
Harbor department officials, who in the past have had their own troubles persuading Specialty to live up to its master lease agreement with the port, say they do take the merchants' concerns seriously. Its investigation of the tenant complaints was completed in November and is awaiting action by the commissioners. Commissioner
Joseph Zaninovich, who recently persuaded commissioners to delay a vote on whether to grant Specialty the permits it needs to dismantle the Skytower until merchant concerns could be studied, said every complaint will be reviewed by the board.
Ron Kennedy, the port's property manager, said that while the investigation by his staff was under way, port employees made it a point to attend the merchant association's weekly meetings. Specific complaints voiced by merchants at the meetings were examined by his staff, he said.
Although Kennedy said he believes it would not be proper to divulge the conclusions reached by his staff until commissioners have had adequate time to study the report, he said he believes Specialty is attempting to correct maintenance problems at the center. Moreover, he said he did not know merchants wanted the Skytower saved until his staff asked commissioners to allow Specialty to take it down several weeks ago.
Not Aware of Concern
"I wasn't aware of any concern to save the Skytower," Kennedy said. "I mean, it has never been much of an attraction to the village since its inception, and I'm sure there could be other things that would be more beneficial to Ports o' Call."
William Sleeper, Specialty's vice president and controller, said that although the company is aware that "a few merchants have continued to complain" about maintenance at the village, the company believes the center is being properly operated. As evidence, he points to the center's vacancy rate, which he estimated at below 10%. Port officials said that rate is considered good for centers like Ports o' Call, which typically experience a high turnover rate among smaller merchants.
Sleeper also said he is confounded by the debate over the fate of the Skytower, which the company decided to sell to Bob-Lo Island, an amusement park near Detroit, because it was unprofitable. "I am surprised anybody would raise the question we wouldn't have the right to make adjustments to our own village facility," he said.
Terry Williams, the merchant association president, said his group did not learn about the sale and removal of the Skytower until after Specialty announced it had signed a deal with Bob-Lo Island officials. He said merchants think the tower, which looks like a scaled-down version of Seattle's 605-foot Space Needle minus the rooftop restaurant, should be fixed, or that another attraction, such as an amphitheater, should be built in its place. The fear among merchants, he said, is that Specialty will build more stores where the tower now stands, thereby increasing competition for existing stores.
No Replacement Plans
Sleeper said the company has not decided what should replace the Skytower, explaining that Specialty is concerned with "making sure it gets taken down first." The company, which would have to gain approval from the harbor commissioners before it constructs anything on the site, has not yet presented any plans to the port.