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VENTURA COUNTY BUSINESS | VENTURA COUNTY REVIEW

Times, Business Strategies Change at Channel Islands Harbor

July 13, 1999|LEO SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As the Channel Islands Harbor was being dredged in the mid-1960s, it probably didn't occur to anyone that Hawaiian shirts one day would be a cornerstone of retail business at the location.

But the recent opening of the Smuggler's Cove Trading Co.--a shop stocked with flowery island attire--is an indication that times and business strategies have changed.

Where boat parts, custom-made sails and nautical charts once ruled the docks, now souvenirs and Channel Islands excursions take center stage at one of the harbor's primary retail centers, the Marine Emporium Landing.

Smuggler's Cove joins two other recent Emporium Landing additions--Capt. Hook's Sportfishing, which moved from Ventura Harbor, and a field office of the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. The center houses more than two dozen other tenants, including the Coast Chandlery marine supply shop, the Channel Islands Kayak Center, Electra Craft boat sales and rentals, Island Packers excursions and the Pacific Scuba Center.

The makeup of Marine Emporium Landing, now 100% occupied, is dramatically different from years past, when the site housed marine businesses specifically targeting boat users.

"There are 22,000 registered boat owners in Ventura County, and 4,400 of them have boats in the water--having a chandlery that markets specifically to those people is a limited market," said Steve Buenger, owner of Marine Emporium Landing and Coast Chandlery.

"We had to back up and say, 'What can I sell to the 750,000 people who live in the county?' There's a little more future in that. . . . We offer public access to the islands through sportfishing, scuba diving, island excursions," he said. "The focus has shifted from a boater-serving emphasis to a visitor-serving emphasis, with visitor activities centered on enjoying the islands and the harbor."

Buenger's father, Fred, opened the original Coast Chandlery in 1964 when the harbor was formed. The county wanted the chandlery space for a restaurant a decade later and, in exchange, offered Buenger an option to build elsewhere at the harbor. Buenger turned his attention to the Marine Emporium Landing, and by 1978 the center consisted of two buildings occupying about 25,000 square feet.

"In the 1970s, the marine business was booming," Steve Buenger said. "It became a shopping center / marine emporium."

The climate shifted for marine businesses at the harbor in the early 1990s. The chandlery and other boating industry retailers lost business due to the recession, a new luxury tax on boats and growing competition from new forms of marine retailing, Buenger said.

"The marine business had many new lines of supply like mail order, mass merchandisers--just about every registered boat owner received 12 to 18 mail-order catalogs a year," he said. "The merit of having a full-line chandlery in a destination location was limited. Today, you can get stuff over the Internet; you can get marine stuff in the middle of a big city where there's no water around."

With the price of retail space more expensive at the harbor than in other areas and with no particular need for marine retailers at the harbor in the first place, tenants began to drop off, Buenger said. By 1993, occupancy at Marine Emporium Landing dropped to about 60%.

Now, with the recent tenant signings, the emporium is back to capacity. Additional office space has opened up, and Buenger said plans are in the works for three additional buildings at the site.

"Beginning in 1993, we recruited the Pacific Scuba Center, got Island Packers as a tenant and started doing sportfishing out of this landing," Buenger said.

"We came to a fork in the road where we had to reexamine why we are here and what we are doing . . . and either keep doing it or do something new and creative," he said. "The best source for marine products and services are boatyards where boats are hauled and serviced. Being at the waterfront serves no real advantage for selling marine supplies now except on the weekends."

Coast Chandlery now stocks sandpaper, varnish and other items that boaters need on-site. Buenger and his family also own marine chandleries in Santa Barbara and Cabo San Lucas, but unlike the Channel Islands store, they both continue to specialize in all types of boating supplies.

"With our proximity to Los Angeles [at Channel Islands] and the available lines of supplies for boat owners, the maximum return on this property is found through providing visitor-serving activities," he said.

Jason Lazar and his wife, Lisa, opened the Pacific Scuba Center at Marine Emporium Landing in 1995 with the hopes that the landing as a whole would concentrate its attention on visitor business. Lazar said there has been a definite upswing in foot traffic at the landing since the excursion businesses have been added.

"Now that he's got the kayak place and Island Packers, there's a lot more people coming through here for fishing, and Capt. Hook's has been bringing people in," he added.

"We're still in business, so I guess we're doing pretty good," he said. "We do a lot of trips, but unfortunately there's no dive boat going out of Channel Islands Harbor, so we go out of Ventura Harbor. Hopefully, we'll be getting a dive boat here."

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