LONG BEACH — In remarks suggesting that Long Beach may be losing the race for the Walt Disney Co.'s new West Coast theme park, Mayor Ernie Kell said Thursday he believes that there is an 80% chance the company will select Anaheim as the home of its next $3-billion resort.
The mayor also said he "would not be surprised" if Disney ended within 60 days its yearlong negotiations with Long Beach over the proposed DisneySea complex, a huge aquatic theme park and tourist destination that has drawn both bitter protests and wild applause from around the state.
"I am not as optimistic as I was six months ago," Kell said Thursday in an interview and in similar remarks Wednesday to a local homeowners group.
"As someone who has done a little developing in the past, . . . I just don't think it makes as much economic sense for Disney or the city now," he said.
David Malmuth, a vice president at the Disney Development Co., said Long Beach remains in the running.
"We're still working on it," he said. "It's not a good time to be speculating."
While other city officials dismissed Kell's remarks as "just the mayor's opinion," they are the most pessimistic public statements to be made by a city official in the nearly two years since Disney pitted Long Beach against Anaheim in a race to become the new West Coast tourist Mecca.
Anaheim Mayor Fred Hunter said he believes Kell's statements to be "fairly accurate."
"We're not gloating," he said Thursday. "From what I hear as mayor of Anaheim, I think he is fairly correct."
Hunter would not say whether Disney has made any commitments to Anaheim but did say negotiations with Disney officials are going "very well."
"I think Disney will build in Anaheim and Long Beach," he said, "but from all indications, they are going to do Anaheim first."
DisneySea would have an aquatic theme park and six hotels along the Long Beach waterfront. Disney also proposed a Disneyland Resort with a Westcot Center, three hotels and a 6-acre lake next to the present Disneyland in Anaheim.
Either project is sure to bring the host city millions in tax and tourist dollars, but Disney says it will build just one complex. A decision is expected by year's end.
Kell mayor said he believes that the chances of Disney building in Long Beach have slipped in recent months from 70% to 20%, primarily because of the company's problems securing permits to build part of the resort on 250 acres of landfill in Long Beach Harbor.
Statewide environmental groups oppose the landfill as a bid to undermine the California Coastal Act, which Disney sought last year to amend in Sacramento. The legislation, which would have allowed the firm to create landfill for recreational use, failed, causing Disney to suggest scaling back the landfill to 85 acres and leaving the Coastal Act intact.
"I doubt that latest plan will fly," Kell said, explaining that the smaller scale means that Disney would have problems shielding its guests from cranes, terminals and other industrial sites at the nearby Port of Long Beach. "They always try to create an atmosphere of euphoria at their parks," he said. "It's the size and the shape of the thing. . . . I just don't think it would work for the city or Disney."
The Long Beach project has been controversial since it was unveiled 16 months ago. While the business community welcomed it as a multimillion-dollar solution to the city's financial woes, port tenants doubt that an amusement park can profitably share the harbor with one of the nation's largest maritime complexes. More than two dozen government permits would be needed for Disney to build in the harbor.
The opposition in Anaheim is a murmur by contrast. Disneyland opened there 36 years ago, and the city has benefited financially ever since. There are fewer environmental concerns there and fewer permits to secure for a new park. That disparity alone has led observers to wonder whether Disney would bother with Long Beach and its hurdles.
"The rumor seems to persist that on or before the end of the year, Disney will announce they will not be building in Long Beach," a Long Beach source said Thursday.
Long Beach Harbor Commissioner Alex R. Bellehumeur, who has taken part in the talks, acknowledged that his city's chances with Disney slipped when the Coastal Act legislation failed. But he said a deal can still be struck "as long as people are talking."
"The odds are less than they were," he said. "But even if the odds are 20%, . . . I think there is a solution to be found."