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Legal Ruling Asked on Use of Port Funds : $80-Million Deal Slated to Expand Convention Center

July 02, 1989|CHRIS WOODYARD | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — Harbor Commission attorneys say they will seek a court ruling to try to ensure the legality of an $80-million deal to expand the convention center.

A Superior Court judge will be asked to decide whether the Port of Long Beach can use its funds to finance the expansion of the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center, Senior Deputy City Atty. Einar C. Petersen said.

"There is a question--not a big question--whether this can be done," Petersen said.

A preliminary review of the pertinent laws indicates that the deal is legal, Petersen said. But officials will seek a "validation" judgment in an effort to discourage future legal challenges, he added.

The San Diego Port District spent $160 million to build a harbor-front convention center. But, unlike San Diego, Long Beach's convention center stands outside the official boundaries of the port, Petersen said.

He said the provisions of the Tidelands Act, the state law that covers the operations of ports and harbors, is silent about such fund transfers.

Of larger concern, he said, is a provision in the City Charter that limits the spending of harbor revenues to improvements "to lands and property under the control, supervision and management of the Harbor Department."

The convention center is not under Harbor Department supervision, but the charter also empowers the City Council to transfer additional authority--such as control over convention center expansion--to the Harbor Commission, Petersen said.

City leaders have said an expanded convention center is crucial to revitalizing downtown Long Beach. Slated for completion in 1992, the expansion would almost triple the exhibit space in the center. Officials say they hope mid-sized conventions will be attracted to the city, filling the downtown's hotel rooms and local restaurants.

Within the next couple of months, Petersen said, a newspaper legal advertisement will announce details of the financing. At a subsequent court hearing, attorneys for any opponents to the arrangement will have a chance to counter the Harbor Commission's arguments.

Petersen said he is unaware of any potential court adversaries. He said the court action will be undertaken as a "conservative approach" to make sure the port is on sound legal footing.

The Los Angeles Steamship Assn., which represents all of the major shipping and terminal companies in the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, opposes the proposed transfer of funds. Association President Mike Karmelich said he plans to write a protest letter and make an appearance before the Harbor Commission, but that no legal action is planned.

"I think our basic feeling is we have projects that need to be done within the port for the port-related industries," Karmelich said. The port's companies, which pay leases and fees that generate the port's revenues, cannot "see the benefit our industries are going to have with an expanded convention center."

Donald L. Westerland, chairman of the Long Beach Redevelopment Agency board, said that planning activities will continue while the legality of the convention center expansion project is reviewed.

Joseph F. Prevratil, who resigned as the port's executive director to head the convention center expansion as a private consultant to the city, said: "There is an awful lot of preliminary work before you do the engineering drawings."

In particular, he said, planners must check to see how the convention center project will work in conjunction with other planned developments, such as high-rise offices and condominiums on the site of the old Pike amusement park and Walt Disney Co.'s proposed hotel and amusement park on either side of Queensway Bay.

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