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COVER STORY : Leader of the Pack : Christopher R. Pook is the driving force behind a $200-million plan to build an auto research center and create 13,000 jobs.

August 11, 1994|EDMUND NEWTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Say what you will about automobile race impresario Christopher R. Pook, but he's a consummate salesman.

Making a pitch a few weeks ago at Long Beach City Hall for a research and development park and test track on the Long Beach-Signal Hill border, Pook showed rapt City Council members pictures of rusting oil tanks and contaminated dirt on the prospective site.

Then he showed an architect's rendering of gleaming structures, rustling trees and racing cars circling a grassy infield.

Finally, he flashed a pair of slides on a screen with the magical words "Jobs" and "Real Estate Enhancement" in block letters.

Pook had apparently pushed the right buttons. Praise rippled up and down the City Council dais like "the wave" going through a football stadium, with one council member after another taking up the theme.

Groping for superlatives, Councilman Les Robbins blurted: "This is a very important project whose potential is beyond comprehension."

In a city where real estate values have sunk and jobs have disappeared like a desert mirage, good news arrives like a rumor of water among the desperately thirsty.

The $200-million Transwest Park Research and Development Complex, with its promise of 13,000 full-time jobs and an eventual economic impact in the nine-digit range, has the potential to be very good news indeed--though some auto industry experts have already voiced skepticism about the idea.

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Christopher Pook, 53, the British-born former travel agent who brought Grand Prix to Long Beach and an aggressive entrepreneur whom everybody, including Pook himself, describes as "a bulldog," gives the project special credibility, several council members said.

"He's a very astute businessman--an expert in his field," says Councilman Mike Donelon.

Of course, the project--including research facilities, test track, alternative fuels center, driving school and a planned four auto races a year--has a long way to go before it is even officially considered by the city councils of Long Beach and Signal Hill.

Additionally, officials of Signal Hill, which has jurisdiction over 55% of the 200-acre site, are sounding less eager than those in Long Beach.

"In my opinion it has tremendous potential," said Signal Hill City Manager Douglas LaBelle. "But the environmental impacts need to be very critically analyzed--noise, traffic, that sort of thing. We're proceeding down that middle road."

Both the Long Beach Community Development Agency and the Signal Hill city manager's office have been directed to study the plan, which relies on city redevelopment money and private investment. The developers--including J.A. Jones Construction Co. of North Carolina, the third-largest builder in the country, and Affiliated Development Group, a Pasadena-based firm headed by former Long Beach Transit Chairman George Medak--must produce an environmental report.

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Meanwhile, a group headed by racing tycoon Roger Penske is moving full-speed on plans for a track in Fontana, 50 miles away in San Bernardino County, which should be completed in 1996. That's a year before the earliest possible completion date for the Pook project.

The Penske track already has commitments from Indy car and stock car sanctioning associations to stage races there, said Walter Czarnecki, executive vice president of the Penske Corp. Czarnecki added that under current plans, "there will ample opportunities for testing--tire companies, auto companies, educational institutions, alternate fuels researchers."

Reflecting on the two similar proposals, a spokesman for one major auto manufacturer with facilities in California said "I can't believe Southern California will support" two new test tracks.

But don't count Pook out, Long Beach officials caution.

In recent years, as Long Beach-based McDonnell Douglas was laying off 30,000 workers and the U.S. Navy was dismantling the Long Beach Naval Station, there has always been one reliable piece of good news for the city's merchants and budget-crafters. Every spring, 200,000 or so fans gather over three days at the city's waterfront to watch racing cars.

The annual Grand Prix, which Pook founded in 1975, brings about $30 million worth of business to Long Beach and gives the city's sputtering 5,000-room hotel industry its most profitable week of the year.

Pook is talking about a more permanent monument to his preoccupation (He's "Prix-occupied," says the license plate frame on his 1994 Lexus), converting a dreary-looking oil field into a modern racetrack surrounded by several 12-story alabaster office towers and with college professors with stopwatches studying automotive prototypes careening down the roadway.

"It's not a complicated project," says Pook, a short, compact man with a goatee and a sweep of iron-gray hair curling over his collar. "You've got an ugly piece of land over here. You've got a human resource over there. And you've got a huge market."

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The market is the auto industry, which Pook contends suffers from lack of research and testing facilities.

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