LONG BEACH — Time was when nobody much cared about this city's downtown.
A depressed area with what everyone vaguely sensed was a glorious past, the neighborhood served as home to the homeless and a monument to urban decline.
Then came redevelopment. Millions of dollars poured in, along with the city's promises of revitalization. And business came, too: artsy shops and restaurants along Pine Avenue, new hotels on Ocean Boulevard.
"We created the positive image of downtown," claims Pat Phillips, editor of the 7-year-old Seabreeze, a 60,000-circulation community newspaper distributed free each month to homes, office buildings and retail shops throughout the city.
Published by the Downtown Long Beach Associates--a city-sponsored organization funded by a special assessment district to which all downtown merchants belong--the paper has tried to promote downtown business by providing positive community features and inexpensive advertising.
Ironically, what the paper views as its success may now prove to be its undoing. Downtown is finally considered hot. And looming on the horizon is a battle of the throwaways: a struggle of attrition that could become one of the biggest little newspaper wars the neighborhood has ever seen.
"It's the same thing as a political race," Phillips complained. "You get too many candidates and the vote is split, so nobody wins."
The challenger is the Downtown Gazette, a weekly scheduled to debut Oct. 10 with about 20,000 copies. "Look at downtown--it's going crazy," said Gazette publisher John Blowitz. "Redevelopment promises to bring in thousands and thousands of new people. It's a natural target for a community-type paper."
Patterned closely after Blowitz's already successful Grunion Gazette in Belmont Shore, the new paper will contain features and ads with a decidedly downtown slant. But unlike the Seabreeze, he said, the Gazette's editorial policy will not be dominated by a special interest.
"I don't think there's room for everybody downtown," said Blowitz, who will distribute his paper free in news racks and downtown office buildings and by hand on city streets. "When the dust settles, there will be . . . one dominant general-interest weekly."
The Seabreeze is already feeling the effects of competition. Last week, in a stormy special session, the Downtown Long Beach Associates' board of directors voted to contract with an independent publisher to put the paper out weekly beginning Sept. 19.
While the business association will retain ownership and editorial control of the Seabreeze, its actual production and distribution will be taken over by publisher Ron Hodges, who will pay the organization a fixed royalty.
"I don't think there's any doubt that we're going to have the best weekly paper," said Hodges, who also publishes a monthly magazine called Restaurant Row and an Orange County newspaper called Airport News Monthly.
Underlying the battle of the throwaways is a deeper question involving the business association's financial and management abilities. The organization, which has an annual budget of about $200,000, has been under close scrutiny since 1986, when the city forbade it from using city or Redevelopment Agency funds to keep the Seabreeze afloat.
In fact, said association President Bill Gurzi, the inspiration for making the paper a weekly and turning it over to an independent contractor came last November when association officials discovered that the Seabreeze was operating at a deficit that at one point approached $22,000.
Since then, Gurzi said, the deficit has been narrowed to $7,583, including about $2,200 in uncollectable debts. By turning the operation over to a professional publisher willing to assume the financial risk, he said, the organization hopes to save the paper and itself.
"We are trying to facilitate the saving of a publication which will print our opinions and not edit them out," Gurzi said.
Many consider that goal particularly important in light of recent criticism of the organization.
An editorial in the Long Beach Press-Telegram, for instance, urged the city to set a one-year deadline for the association to justify its continued existence after bookkeeping discrepancies came to light and the organization lost $64,000 during Carnaval, a Latin-theme festival it sponsored in May.
And in recent years, at least one other business organization has been created to challenge the Downtown Long Beach Associates in its own back yard.
Among the factors working against the reconstituted Seabreeze is that its advertising rates have been about twice those of the Grunion Gazette.
Hodges hopes to remedy that situation immediately. In addition, he intends to give the association's paper an "upscale, cleaner look," use more color and distribute its initial run of 40,000 copies in areas peopled by affluent residents whom downtown businesses would like to attract.
"We're going to give (advertisers) a lot for their money," Hodges said. "The problem is that (the Seabreeze) has never targeted the consumers who are going to come down and spend money."
That may not be enough to win back the loyalty of downtown merchants who have become accustomed to advertising in the Gazette, however.
"If you are going to depend on support from (association) members, don't do it," Jon-David, a Pine Avenue merchant, urged Hodges at the recent board meeting. "We retailers will go for the best buy and the best coverage."
Said Betty Wilburn, co-owner of Justina's Restaurant on Pine Avenue and an association member: "We've found that locally we've gotten the best support from the Gazette."