For years, the much-touted rebirth of downtown Long Beach has seemed more like false labor to the businesses struggling with construction dust, dead weekends and a workday clientele that evacuates at 5 o'clock.
But this weekend, the latest leg of the Blue Line is opening and will trundle passengers from Los Angeles to the ocean's doorstep in downtown Long Beach. With its arrival, local business people say, the picture of a vital, urban downtown is taking form at last.
"Finally, something is finished," rejoiced John Morris, owner of Mum's on Pine Avenue, one of the pioneer upscale restaurants to take a gamble on the city's promise of a downtown renaissance.
The Blue Line opened July 14 with more than 19 miles of track stretching from Los Angeles to Anaheim Street in Long Beach. The most recent leg, known as the loop, adds two miles to the Civic Center.
Already, Morris said, there has been an increase in lunch business from Blue Line passengers who found their way downtown even before the train started delivering them there Saturday. Until now, riders could take the line only to Anaheim Station in the northern end of town.
Women from Downey are hopping the train to have lunch in Long Beach, Morris said. Soon, he and others envision, passengers will ride downtown to see a play and have supper.
People from Los Angeles will discover that Long Beach is a worn-out Navy town no more, he said. And people from Long Beach will renew their faith in the area that is supposed to be their city's heartbeat.
"People will drop off their husbands and wives at the Blue Line station downtown, and when they pick them up at the end of the day, they might just decide to stay and have dinner," Morris said.
"It's a matter of getting people to believe again in coming downtown," said Sam King, owner of the Pine Avenue Fish House. "The future is with us. It's just unfortunate the past has been also."
A survey last year by the Long Beach Area Convention and Visitors Council confirmed what business leaders already knew: There is a stubborn perception among Los Angeles and Orange County residents that downtown Long Beach is brimming with tattoo parlors, tipsy sailors and boarded-up shops.
The Blue Line, they hope, will help tourists rediscover the plush hotels, posh restaurants and theater already operating, as the rest of the Civic Center is evolving.
"People from the Los Angeles area who haven't been in Long Beach for a while might be pleasantly surprised at what they see," Davis said. "And maybe they'll loosen up the change in their pockets and spend a little money."
But the Blue Line will not do it alone, they concede. Merchants are eagerly awaiting the theater complex recently approved by the City Council; the convention center expansion is expected to be complete in two years, and depressing yellow street lights will be replaced with more popular white ones.
Those improvements are expected to attract tourists--indeed, Long Beach residents--back to downtown.
"But the Blue Line will help get them there," said Linda Friedland, owner of Trende, the first high-end retail clothing store to open downtown in many years.
None of the merchants is expecting business to turn stunningly around after the festivities subside this weekend. First off, the trains stop running at 9 p.m.--too early for an evening of dinner and theater. But transit officials are already talking of expanding the hours, considering the Blue Line's successful showing so far.
There are some fears that the trains will open Long Beach's doors not only to tourists, but also to criminals, a potential problem that has been discussed by Downtown Long Beach Associates.
"We certainly don't want to see it become a shuttle for gangs," Friedland, a board member of the downtown group, said about the Blue Line's expansion. "It's a 50-50 shot, I guess. It will either be real beneficial or a real bad thing."
But early operation of the Blue Line has shown crime to be minimal, with a battalion of sheriff's deputies patroling the trains and cruising the tracks. In addition, Long Beach police officers are showing a greater presence downtown with bicycle patrols, leaving downtown merchants with mostly high hopes.
"I don't see anything negative about the Blue Line at all," Davis said. "It's another link to the rest of the world for us."