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Bottom Line: A Battle Royal Over Future of Queen Mary : Tourism: It could cost the port $1 million a month to keep the ship open, a consultant concludes. Several officials want to close the attraction, but four City Council members strongly disagree. The Harbor Commission will have the final word--and it is divided.

June 14, 1992|ROXANA KOPETMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONG BEACH — Whether the Queen Mary luxury liner remains afloat in Long Beach will be the topic of heated debate this week, when officials discuss a consultant's conclusion that running the oceanfront attraction would cost the Port of Long Beach nearly $1 million a month.

In a report to the city last week, Economic Research Associates said the port would have to pay about $2.7 million to run the Queen Mary attraction until the end of the year, after the Walt Disney Co. drops its lease in September.

If the Queen Mary Hotel is closed down but the ship remains open, it would cost $1.6 million for three months, the report says.

Some officials are calling for the least expensive option of all: closing down the attraction, which employs nearly 1,000 people. Other city officials said they will fight to keep open the liner that has become a symbol of Long Beach since it docked in 1967.

"I think the report speaks for itself. The report says it's not economically feasible to remain open," said Steve R. Dillenbeck, the port's executive director. "What happens after that becomes a political decision."

In the end, the decision will be made by the five-member Long Beach Harbor Commission, which oversees port operations, and the commission appears to be split on the issue.

Commission President Joel Friedland and Commissioner David L. Hauser said they see little choice in the matter. The port cannot afford to spend millions on an attraction that has lost $7 million to $8 million a year, they said.

"In the times we are in, with the financial problems the city has and the county and the state . . . it does not make sense to continue losing that amount of money," Hauser said.

Commissioner Alex Bellehumeur said he would vote to keep the attraction open "only if losses can be cut dramatically," which the commissioner said could be accomplished with a less expensive operator.

Bellehumeur said he hopes the port can keep the liner with its restaurants and other attractions open for another three years, until officials decide what else they want at the oceanfront site. Options for the land include a cruise terminal, a theme park, an aquarium and an international marketplace.

The Queen Mary could thrive in that setting, Bellehumeur said. "We do not want to sink the Queen Mary. We want it to remain open," he said.

Commissioner Roy Hearrean, who has supported the Queen Mary in past discussions of the issue, said last week that he has not made up his mind and wants to hear the opinions of his colleagues and the City Council.

In the meantime, Hearrean said his phone was ringing off the hook with callers lobbying for both positions. "The phones are going wild," he said.

Commissioner Carmen Perez could not be reached for comment.

Officials are still awaiting the second phase of the report by Economic Research Associates, which will examine the costs of keeping the Queen Mary open long term. In addition, city officials are expecting another study by Ehrenkrantz & Eckstut Architects, hired to recommend the best use for the oceanfront property near the ship.

Meanwhile, the fate of the Spruce Goose, the giant wooden plane at the site, remained unclear. When Howard Hughes' "flying boat" was mentioned in the report, it was assumed that it would leave the area.

Commissioners are expected to discuss the report on Monday, but they do not plan to make a decision until after City Council members debate the matter Tuesday. The City Council would only advise the Harbor Commission on the issue, however.

Mayor Ernie Kell said he would recommend closing down at least the hotel, if not the entire attraction.

Kell, who appoints the members of the powerful Harbor Commission, said: "Those losses have to be stopped. Those are public funds we are dealing with. At the very least, close the hotel."

He said a profitable venture could be developed on the waterfront.

"When I think of Long Beach, I think of Long Beach. I didn't come here because of the Queen Mary. It's a beautiful ship, no question about it. But I think something else can be done with that property," Kell said.

But four of the nine-member council vehemently disagreed. Councilmen Evan Anderson Braude, Ray Grabinski, Warren Harwood and Vice Mayor Jeffrey A. Kellogg said they would encourage harbor commissioners to keep the attraction open. The four councilmen agreed that the ship might not be profitable now, but it might generate revenue once it's part of a bigger oceanfront attraction.

Kellogg said closing the hotel would turn the Queen Mary into a "ghost ship." Harwood said to close it would be "foolish and wasteful."

Grabinski said that shutting the doors of the 365-room hotel would "really stab at the future of the Queen Mary."

Echoing his colleagues, Braude said: "It may cost the port a little more now, but in the long run, it could make them money."

The other five councilmen could not be reached for comment.

Meanwhile, employees who in recent months have lobbied the city to keep the ship open and save their jobs, were crestfallen at news of the consultant's report.

Carol Laird, a bartender on the ship, said she and other workers expect to attend the council meeting on Tuesday. Laird said officials are more concerned with developing condominiums on the land surrounding the ship than in preserving jobs.

"The Queen Mary is nothing (to them) compared to acres and acres of ocean frontage," she said.

Community correspondent Kirsten Lee Swartz contributed to this report.

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