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COVER STORY : Keeping Tourism Afloat : Long Beach Pins Its Future on Splashy Waterfront Development

November 03, 1994|JOHN POPE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At the edge of the vast asphalt desert that separates downtown Long Beach from the shoreline, a lone tattoo parlor and a weathered, domed building stand as the sole survivors of an era when the city reigned as the busiest tourist spot in Southern California.

This desolate place, visible from the 14-story City Hall building to the north, serves as a painful reminder that not since the heyday of the bustling Pike amusement park has Long Beach been able to woo the tourists it once did.

But city leaders hope to change that with an ambitious, $557-million waterfront development covering a 310-acre area that includes land once occupied by The Pike.

City officials envision that in about 10 years, tourists, conventioneers and Long Beach residents will stroll along sprawling, richly landscaped waterfront walkways, board historic ships from floating docks, dine in one of many restaurants overlooking a new harbor--created from a dredged Shoreline Lagoon--and discover undersea wonders at a $100-million state-of-the-art aquarium, the project's centerpiece.

Visitors could picnic in lush parkland, stop for dessert at a sidewalk cafe, catch a dinner cruise or shop in quaint retail outlets before dancing the night away at a club.

The ultimate goal of the Queensway Bay development, said City Manager James C. Hankla, is "to re-establish Long Beach as the largest and most compelling waterfront tourist destination in Southern California."

The mood of the attraction promises to be far different from that of The Pike, which closed in 1979. For starters, there won't be a roller coaster or fun house. There won't be showmen like motorcycle daredevil Reckless Ross and maverick dentist Painless Parker.

The south side of the harbor, near the Queen Mary, will have an outdoor amphitheater, where concert-goers can watch performances under the stars. There also will be musicians and mime troupes.

The plan is patterned after a successful waterfront development that turned a blighted urban harbor in Baltimore into a bustling tourist attraction.

And with the aquarium, Long Beach officials have selected an attraction that draws millions of visitors every year in other cities. So many cities have built aquariums, in fact, that an Associated Press business writer dubbed the 1990s: "the spawning of the Age of Aquariums."

City officials estimate that the Queensway Bay project would create 3,500 jobs and pump about $275 million a year into the Long Beach economy. And residents would gain an attraction that costs nothing to visit.

"You can walk around and enjoy the waterfront and not spend one penny unless you want to," said Phil F. Infelise, a retired banker who chairs the Queensway Bay Citizen Advisory Committee, which meets with residents to promote the plan.

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By connecting shops, promenades, restaurants and the new harbor, the city intends to link downtown with the shoreline, a connection that was lost when landfills moved the shoreline hundreds of feet south.

City officials launched the project after Walt Disney Co. decided three years ago against Long Beach as a site for a proposed $3-billion theme park.

"Disney's enthusiasm for Long Beach showed us that there is a substantial opportunity here that we should not allow to pass by," Hankla said.

The ambitious plan does have its critics. Some see the development as a costly gamble for a city grappling with severe budget cuts and struggling to raise millions of dollars for such projects as making the city more accessible to the disabled and upgrading an overtaxed 911 emergency system.

"We haven't sufficient financing to run the city's existing services properly," Long Beach resident Thomas Murphy said at a recent City Council meeting. "(The project) will create even more economic problems, adding another white elephant to the costly and impractical decisions that were so prevalent with our past elected officials."

The development, according to estimates by its architects, would require about $125 million from the city, about $40 million from the Port of Long Beach and nearly $400 million from private investors and developers.

The City Council unanimously approved the Queensway Bay plan in March, and has chosen a company to oversee a bond issue to pay for the aquarium. The bond issue will not require voter approval. The bonds would be repaid through income from parking, admission and concession fees. Officials also have ordered an environmental impact report and have begun securing the necessary permits.

A $120-million expansion of the Convention Center, now considered part of the initial phase of the Queensway plan, was finished in July. The renovations nearly tripled the size of the exhibit hall--from 88,000 to 224,000 square feet--and the meeting room space--from 21,000 to about 61,000 square feet. The expansion puts the Long Beach center among the 10 largest in the state, officials said.

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