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California and the West

Surfers Seek to Stem the Tide of Huntington Beach Events

Access: Locals object to slew of contests that displace them. Official agrees to talk but notes city's need for tourist revenue.

September 10, 1998|LESLEY WRIGHT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

HUNTINGTON BEACH — Surf City's hometown surfers have been told to pound sand a few times too many.

About 30 of them stormed the City Council meeting Tuesday night to complain that they are being crowded out of the waters by a burgeoning number of competitive surfing events that bring in millions of visitors and advertising dollars.

"This has gotten out of hand," said Bill Shappell, one of the surfers who wore their formal attire of T-shirts with long, baggy shorts or jeans. "We call it Surf City, and we're pushed aside. We're just tired of it."

Tony Alvarez, a stocky young man known in the surfing world as "Big Tony," told council members that some of the choicest places to catch waves--such as alongside the famed pier--have been off limits three weekends out of four in the past year while the seaside city has hosted a total of 35 surfing contests.

"We are the surfing community," Alvarez said. "Not the organized events at the pier. Why should we, the taxpayers, have to be told to go somewhere else?"

Polite but firm, the loosely gathered coalition read statements to council members, who promised to study the problem. But Ron Hagan, the city's community services director, had to sigh a little in exasperation Wednesday.

Yes, he will meet with the group and make some compromises on the number of yearly events and their timing. But the locals have to understand that this is bigger than all of them, he said. These events, so irritating to those who want a lazy day at the pier, are the fuel of this largely residential city, which otherwise runs on the fumes of paltry sales tax revenues, he said.

And the white sand beach, which is laboriously raked clean 360 days out of the year, is crucial to the economy, he said.

"What happens is, the events fill hotel rooms and cause business to go up," Hagan said. "The events have a big spinoff. Obviously, we're dependent on tourism now for revenue. We don't have a South Coast Plaza. We don't have a Westminster Mall. We do have hotels and the beach."

City officials have not calculated how much revenue the big events pump into local coffers. But it's a lot. And at a minimum, the city must find a way to earn the $3.5 million spent each year on top-drawer lifeguards and beach maintenance. Business leaders estimate that sales increase 30% to 40% on event days.

If it's not the Katin Team Challenge, it's the Ocean Pacific Pro Tour or the U.S. Open of Surfing, all drawing thousands of spectators and hundreds of surfers to the prized waves that give Huntington Beach its nickname.

Just this year, the city doubled and tripled the cost of event permits, which now run up to $250 per day for nonprofit organizations to $5,000 per day for professionals.

City officials, desperate to pull in some bucks to this commercially challenged community, concede that they can't get enough of surfing events. The people. The permit fees. The hotel rooms. A secure hold on this niche sports market. They can see the future, and it is beachside tourism.

And that's exactly what city leaders had in mind when they unveiled the $5-million renovation of Pier Plaza, designed to appeal to the 9 million tourists who visited the community last year. Compare that to the 4.2 million who came 10 years ago, Hagan said. And compare that to the 14 million the city expects in years to come.

But Shappell, Alvarez and others said they are forced to trek to out-of-the-way beaches while the surf industry goes Hollywood.

Many locals do compete in the seemingly endless run of events, and some even make their living that way. But even they are tired of being hustled out of the water to make way for other surfing contestants.

Alvarez suggested that the city limit events to 20 weekends a year. Others recommended stretching the events out along the three-mile city shoreline so the locals can get some time in.

In some ways, the popularity of surfing is to blame. The Surf Industry Manufacturers Assn. in Dana Point estimates that there are 1.75 million surfers taking to U.S. waters, up from 1.1 million in 1992.

And there are not more competitive surfing events in Huntington Beach, just bigger ones, Hagan added. An amateur event 10 years ago drew 25 entries. Now, 250 surfers clamor to get in. And professional events might draw 250,000 spectators, he said.

But the complaints have been duly noted, Hagan added. He said he will meet with locals, most likely in October, and compromise on the annual surf event schedule that is drawn up in December.

But they have to concede some points as well, he said.

"The problem is the locals like to show off," he added. "That's why they like to surf the pier. They can show off to the crowds and get that adulation."

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