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Endangered Navy Site Finds a TV Champion

Debate: Journalist Howser stirs activism against demolition of historic Long Beach spot--to the dismay of city officials.

September 30, 1996|JANET WISCOMBE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With a black armband tied around his bulging biceps, TV personality Huell Howser graciously roams from table to table consoling the troops. He is at once an irresistible presence and a charming host, a big bear of a man with deep dimples, a Southern drawl and a huge heart.

About 800 people, mostly retired military officers and their families, have come to the Officer's Club at the Long Beach Naval Station to dance and dine and drink champagne and bloody Marys together for the last time. With the planned closure of the once-thriving facility this month, they are saying farewell not only to a Sunday tradition but to a way of life.

Howser has come alone. He isn't here with a film crew. He isn't here to conduct official business. He's come, he said, because he cares.

To many residents of Long Beach and surrounding communities, the name Huell Howser has come to mean hero. In little more than a month, the unlikely rabble-rouser has galvanized a city of 435,000 with a messianic charisma. At issue is the city's plan to demolish 11 historic buildings on the 378-acre naval station--including classic International-style buildings designed by the late Paul Revere Williams--and millions of dollars worth of state-of-the-art recreational facilities.

Since coming to the Navy station last month to film "Visiting . . . With Huell Howser," the broadcaster billed as "Everyone's Favorite Visitor" has become a politician's worst nightmare. He's become the leading man in a civic drama that is pitting The People against The Establishment.

Now the debate has quickly moved from issues and politics to the motives of the man himself. For all the popular support Howser is receiving, he's also been the brunt of attack. The Hollywood resident has been called a hayseed and a charlatan. He's been reviled as an opportunist and blamed for the city's problems.

In a letter to Howser, Long Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau President Linda Howell DiMario wrote that she "deeply resents the fact that someone from another city would come into our city and incite citizens to action with such complete and utter disregard" for the city's efforts toward economic recovery.

"He's absolutely inflamed the people and stirred up a hornet's nest," said Mary Barton, president of the International Business Assn.

"He's come to rally the troops and it is not appropriate," said Randy Gordon, president and CEO of the Long Beach Chamber of Commerce.

"My blood is boiling," Howser, 47, thunders in response to such criticism. "The city officials of Long Beach are arrogant. They are looking for someone to blame." Howser said he simply came to town to tell a story about a portion of the Navy site now known as the Roosevelt Historic District and became outraged to learn it was about to be leveled.

The ocean-side real estate is an oasis of palm and olive trees, rosebushes and manicured lawns that looks like a college campus. Facilities include a huge gymnasium and pool, and newly constructed and renovated buildings including Bachelor Officer's Quarters.

Though city officials thought their plan to level the structures to make way for a Chinese shipping terminal were a fait accompli, many Southern Californians had never seen what the base looked like until they saw it on TV.

Howser not only showed them, he came riding back into town like a white knight to try to save the site. Overnight, he became a sensation. He appeared on local TV and at public meetings and rallies. He was the subject of newspaper columns and letters to the editor. He was granted hours of private time with the mayor and city manager.

Earlier this month, he energized a heckling crowd of 1,700 at a Navy-sponsored public hearing. The event, one of the biggest and most derisive of its kind in city history, led to demands for the recall of Mayor Beverly O'Neill.

O'Neill, a mayor who has enjoyed two years of popularity, said he's been torn up by the level of unhappiness members have expressed since Howser came to town. She said she's shocked that after four years of laborious reports and 15 public hearings, people still don't seem to grasp why the city plans to level the Naval Station and lease it to the Chinese government-owned China Ocean Shipping Co.

While it might look like a cargo shed versus a children's playground issue, it isn't that simple, she said. The real issue is jobs in a community that can't afford to maintain the parks it has, let alone others.

"It's painful to see our city divided," O'Neill said. "Huell Howser is a very popular person. He's brought people in--and not just people from Long Beach. From all over. He's used it for a personal cause. . . . He has the power of the media. He doesn't really show the other side."

Referring to Howser's ability to marshal community interest, she added, "I don't feel defensive. I feel frustrated I can't do it as well as Huell can."

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