LONG BEACH — He walked into the crowded room, past the silver coffee urns and the plates of little cookies, to "open a dialogue" with about 200 Long Beach residents. His first mistake was on his upper lip.
A mustache. The very thing that led the Walt Disney Co. to fire several of its Queen Mary employees just last year, perched boldly under the nose of David Malmuth, executive in charge of Disney's proposed plan to build a $2-billion theme park in downtown Long Beach.
"How come you get to wear a mustache?" a woman from the audience demanded to know. Malmuth blushed.
The dress code doesn't apply to executives, he tried to explain. The answer was about as well received as a traffic ticket.
Malmuth, Disney's mild-mannered provost for the Long Beach venture, had come to the first of what is to be a year's worth of open community meetings to explain this thing called Port Disney and allow the people who live here to air their feelings.
At times, it seemed less like an airing of feelings than a baring of teeth.
"The way things sound right now, Disney is trying to take over our front of the ocean!" Belmont Heights resident Stanley Kaufman boomed. "I think Disneyland is working very much for Disneyland!"
"Here, here!" someone in the audience brayed, and half the room burst with applause.
Disney is still months away from deciding whether to build a theme park around the Queen Mary or next to Disneyland in Anaheim, pitting the leaders of both cities in a sort of bidding war. But already, Long Beach's citizenry is divided over whether a 350-acre Disney resort will make their city or break it.
As sure as there is a faction of residents that regards Disney as a cold and profit-hungry corporation, there is a faction that sees a corporate savior descending on a town with its back to the fiscal wall.
"If I'm not mistaken, this town has been very, very fortunate to have McDonnell Douglas as a major employer," one resident said, pointing out thousands of recent layoffs at the aircraft plant. "I think we would be foolish if we didn't take a very, very fair look at the opportunity to advance the good will of this city in a partnership with Disney."
"Years ago, Long Beach voted down a zoo," another woman said. "Now we go to Los Angeles and San Diego. Are we supposed to live here and work here and spend all our entertainment dollars outside the city?"
Clearly, the city is in financial trouble. A poor retail sales tax base translates into millions in lost revenues, while the need for more police, health care and other services is exploding.
"This community will need a fiscal engine to drive it into the 21st Century," City Manager James Hankla said at a recent Disney presentation before the Long Beach area Chamber of Commerce.
"We have done about all we can do with the reserves at our disposal, and the reality is we need more. In 30 years, there hasn't been a project that has at once excited me and to a certain extent frightened me like Disney."
The question Long Beach needs to answer about Disney, Hankla said, is this: "Will the juice be worth the squeeze?"
But there are plenty of other questions on the lips of Long Beach residents already.
Will Disney recycle? Will Disney pollute? Will the theme park be free of plastic foam cups? Will Disney hire Asians, Latinos and blacks? Will 17,000 cars from a Disney parking lot strangle Long Beach streets into gridlock?
The questions came during three community presentations--one a docile, invitation-only meeting with the local chamber; a second closed-to-the-press session with community and business leaders aboard the Queen Mary, and the third last week, an open public meeting arranged by the Belmont Heights Community Assn.
About 200 people showed up full of questions and, in some cases, speeches. A community liaison hired by Disney scribbled notes on three giant pads; Malmuth painted an enticing picture of a resort that he promised would bring "tens of thousands of new jobs and tens of millions in new revenue" to Long Beach.
"When all is said and done, if this project doesn't strengthen this community, it's not a plan you will support," Malmuth said, "and we need your support."
Traffic--probably the single biggest worry expressed by residents so far--would flow mostly down the seldom-used Long Beach Freeway, Malmuth said, citing the travel patterns of Queen Mary tourists.
The impact on local streets would be minimal, Disney officials said, because Disney guests travel three or four to a car, coming and going at off-peak hours.
Then someone opened the door of the recreation building to let in a little fresh air on a warm summer night. The roar of traffic barreling down Seventh Street at 8:30 p.m. flooded the room.
"Listen to that! And this isn't even a peak hour!" a woman shouted.
"I was driving home on Broadway at 5 p.m. tonight, and it was bumper to bumper," another man said. "How in the hell are we going to support 17,000 cars from a Disney parking lot?"
There was a suggestion that the parking lot be built on the outskirts of town and the guests shuttled in on a monorail. There was another suggestion that the parking lot be built in Burbank, Disney's headquarters city.
In the end there were a lot more questions than answers. In the meantime, Disney executives are here to listen, Malmuth said.
And they are taking away an earful.
"The people clearly brought their feelings to the meeting," Malmuth said later. "I think it was very productive. We like having a good turnout of people who express their concerns. We want a dialogue so we can listen and respond as creatively as we can."